Tower Records All Things Must Pass: Rise, Sad Fall

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Tower doc poster-largeAll Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Directed by Colin Hanks
Gravitas Ventures/FilmRise

It’s a unique experience to see a documentary film about a company that I worked for that started in my hometown (that opened in theaters on October 16, 2015). But Tower Records obviously became something special to millions.

Director Colin Hanks used a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource the funding of his film, which traces the history of Tower Records. It’s a lively tale from its inception inside a Sacramento drugstore – attached to and named after the Tower Theatre, and owned by chain founder Russ Solomon’s father – to a retailer whose spectacular growth from its official 1960 founding and its subsequent global reach mirrored the rise and fall of the recorded music industry as a cultural force. By the time the bankrupt Tower’s assets were parted out by liquidators in 2006, record retail was in steep decline, eclipsed by such online vendors as Apple’s iTunes store.

Hanks, the son of actor Tom Hanks, grew up in Sacramento, so the Tower story is not unfamiliar territory to him. It’s good to see a native-son documentarian choose a hometown legend as the subject of a film, and it’s surprising that no one else thought of the idea first.

Tower essentially was a homegrown operation, and many of the people who were interviewed came up through the ranks and thus have deep roots in Sacramento, where the privately-held retail empire was founded and based. The core of former executives Hanks rounded up are a collegial bunch, most of whom reflect the easygoing corporate culture set by Solomon, now age 90, the avuncular figure whose gentle philosophical mien and “aw, shucks, we just lucked into this” demeanor masked the vision and drive he employed to build his company. Most winning of the bunch is Heidi Keller Cotler, the former head of Tower’s retail book division, a gifted storyteller who jokes about expensing the cost of certain snortable stimulants as “hand truck fuel” (which, from my experience working at several Tower stores, may have been an unwritten company policy).

Photos_1981_RussNewYorkStoreOpenParty_03 (crop)

Tower founder Russ Solomon at the 1981 opening of its New York store

It should be mentioned that several celebrities are featured here; at least one of them, Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters bandleader Dave Grohl, worked at a Tower store. Also, Elton John once said that if his career ended he’d probably get a job at the chain’s landmark Sunset Boulevard store in West Hollywood, and the quote made its way to a yellow plywood sign that was posted in some Tower stores.

Tower was both a fun place to work and as well to shop for records. It was run and staffed by music lovers for music lovers – as a great record store should be. The film conveys this essential element of the Tower story.

Where Hanks’ documentary may fall a little short is in its dependence on the former executive team to tell so much of the story; the film may have benefited from interviews with more outside figures – from independent labels like Rounder and Fantasy/Prestige/Milestone, whose growth was facilitated by Tower’s dedication to carrying deep catalog from a wide spectrum of musical genres, or from classical labels, typically owned by major labels, which also benefited from the chain’s commitment to non-pop music.

It was a nice touch to see the late Walter S. “Bud” Martin honored in the film. Martin, a gruff former teacher who became Tower’s in-house finance man, played a Dr. No-style counterpoint role to Solomon’s freewheeling and carefree approach to business. But the team that ran Tower through the early 1990s had a third figure, Tony Valerio, a veteran of independent record distribution who was able to wrestle the extended dating and other financial terms that helped fuel Tower’s rise and make its full-catalog ambitions possible.

What really comes across in All Things Must Pass, and where the film succeeds, is how it conveys the emotional dimensions of the Tower story – there’s a sense among the players that it the chain’s rise from hometown record store to worldwide brand came as a genuine surprise, and when the dream finally crashed, the sadness expressed is palpable. All things must pass, indeed.


Jackson Griffith
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