Monday, March 30, 2015

Tower Records documentary 'All Things Must Pass' screens at LA's Grammy Museum

photo courtesy The Grammy Museum/Russ Solomon
The Grammy Museum at LA Live hosted another fine music film last week as part of its Reel To Reel series.

All Things Must Pass details the rise and fall of Tower Records. The documentary title was inspired by a phrase displayed on the marquee sign of one store that had closed in 2006 (and not, as some might assume, George Harrison’s hit 1970 album with the same moniker).

Having made countless trips to the Tower Sunset Strip location whenever I attended concerts in Hollywood (not to mention such memorable in-store signings and performances as Rod Stewart, Duran Duran and Dramarama), All Things Must Pass was a must-see for me. I was not disappointed.

Director Colin Hanks (known for acting roles in “Orange County,” “Roswell,” “Dexter”) spent seven years making All Things Must Pass; the film was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $92,000 from nearly 1700 backers. Hanks and producer Sean Stuart are currently seeking distribution.

Earlier this month, the absorbing documentary premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin to a rapturous reception. It will screen during opening night of the Sacramento International Film Festival on April 25 at the Tower Theater – the same location where Tower first began.

Due to overwhelming demand, the Grammy Museum has also added a rare encore showing next month (see details below).

The sold out Grammy Museum event on Thursday served as a reunion for several old Tower employees from SoCal. Hanks, Stuart, company founder Russ Solomon and Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Steve Knopper all participated in a panel discussion moderated by the museum’s Scott Goldman (who admitted that he once worked at a Tower location in San Francisco).

A lingering shot of a shuttered Tower store, with empty racks and shelving once teeming with music product, serves as the highly effective opening image. Through multiple interview subjects and archival photos, we see how Tower emerged from its humble drugstore beginnings selling 78 rpm vinyl singles to the first standalone store in Sacramento in 1960.

The Tower head and former members of his executive team provide insight on how the company was run during its heyday (an early motto was “stack ‘em high, sell ‘em low”). Colorful anecdotes from two of them - Heidi Cotler and Jim Viducich – prompted much laughter among the screening audience.

Solomon notes that the music industry was primarily singles driven until The Beach Boys issued their 1962 debut “Surfin’ Safari” and sales of the LP really started to pick up. Record company money helped open the San Francisco store in 1968. Solomon attributes part of their early success to the fact that “we had no dress code.”

Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl all describe how Tower affected them, while David Geffen gives the music biz perspective.

One especially poignant moment in the film comes when ex-Universal Music Group head Jim Urie shares how Solomon changed his life. There’s some old footage of John shopping on new release day and he admits, “I spent more money in Tower than any other human being on the planet.”

Springsteen recalls, “when we first came to LA and went to Tower, we all shocked by the size of it” and “you aspired to have your album cover on one of the murals [outside].”

Grohl worked at a Tower location because it was the only place he could get hired with long hair.

Eventually Tower expanded internationally and started up its own in-house magazine Pulse! By 1999, Tower Records made $1 billion, but due to the rise of Napster and file sharing, the industry’s mandate for high CD prices, sales wars with big box retailers and other factors, the company filed for bankruptcy and closed for good in 2006.

Overall, Hanks and his crew do a good job and hitting all the key points in Tower’s history with the interviews and conveying the sense of family atmosphere.

After All Things Must Pass (and the massive end credits of Kickstarter supporters) concluded, the panel discussion was enlightening.

photo courtesy: The Grammy Museum
Hanks (pictured left center) talked about how he first got the idea to tell the Tower story after having dinner with some people and someone commented on Tower stores closing and how it was hard to believe how it all began.

He didn’t want to use a serious voiceover to tell the story, but “wanted the narrative to be about Russ and what he built.” He also admitted the difficulty of getting song clearances and how he approached Grohl about being a part of the film at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame event. The rocker was game and they did the interview right there.

Solomon, now 89, was apparently seeing the finished cut for the first time at the Grammy Museum. He felt Hanks and Company did a good job with it, but thought they were crazy at first. “I’m proud of what we did. The record business was a lot more fun back then.” On Tower’s international presence, he said going to South America was a big mistake.

Tower was one of the first chains to install listening stations for consumers to hear a CD before buying it - something Knopper said in the panel discussion was a precursor to today’s curated playlists on streaming services.

Archival photos used in the film were from Solomon’s personal collection and Stuart said they will become part of a Sacramento Preservation Project.

After the Grammy program ended, a couple people in attendance could be heard saying there should’ve been some mention of the countless artist in-store signings and performances at Tower stores over the years. Maybe Hanks couldn’t find any decent footage or simply didn’t have room to fit it in. He did say they had to leave a lot of stuff out of the finished film.

Stuart, Solomon, Hanks photo courtesy: The Grammy Museum

Doors open at 7 p.m. April 16. Tickets are $15 and available at

1 comment:

ida said...

This is a great overview and re-cap of the documentary, which was so bittersweet and poignant, I'm still thinking about it frequently.