Once upon a time, there were these things called record stores. In buildings made of brick and mortar, shelves were packed with items called albums or CDs, physical objects that contained music. Going to the record store was a rite of passage for music lovers, flipping through stacks and stacks looking for the right sound to fit your personality and budget. Among one of the great record stores of that bygone era was Tower Records, which always seemed to be overflowing with records that weren’t readily available elsewhere. But Tower Records closed all their locations in the United States back in 2006, and their story is chronicled in All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, the new documentary from Colin Hanks. The film is presented in a lively enough manner, but still can’t escape the fact that it’s the story of a fallen retailer.
Hanks and writer Steven Leckart chronologically tell the story of how Tower Records started as an offshoot of founder Ross Solomon’s father’s drug store in Sacramento, and slowly began to expand as the ‘60s brought about a political and musical revolution, with albums taking over for singles. Interviewing Solomon and a number of other long time employees that started at the ground floor and ascended to executive status, as well as musicians including Dave Grohl, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen, Hanks explores what made Tower Records so unique as opposed to other record retailers – simply, it was their massive inventory and lax corporate oversight. Up until the late ‘90s, Tower Records expanded as its business boomed, opening locations throughout the world. But starting with the digital revolution in the early 2000s, with Napster and file sharing offering young people free music, Tower Records’ sales plummeted. By 2006, there were no more stores open.
In many regards, All Things Must Pass is a lot like the recent documentary on the National Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, interviewing the people involved in the rise and fall of a cultural icon and those affected by it. But All Things Must Pass is about something not nearly as interesting, as it’s simply the story of a retail establishment. Hanks does a nice job incorporating interviews, photographs, and archival footage at a lively pace, but it’s nigh impossible to make this any more interesting than the rise and fall of Montgomery Ward.
I used to shop at Tower Records, and remember going to in-store signings for DEVO and Joe Strummer. To this day, I still drive by the hollow façade of the legendary Sunset Boulevard location. But All Things Must Pass was just a brief ride through nostalgia of the lost retail chain. I’d love to see Colin Hanks try and sink his teeth into a meatier story than that of Tower Records as he’s shown that he’s more than capable of a lively presentation. But there’s not much more to the story of Tower Records than it boomed, they expanded, continued to boom, over expanded, didn’t foresee the problems that other retailers and the internet would cause, and went bust. With little else to expand upon, All Things Must Pass is just a well-made but minor documentary.