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All Things Must Pass
The rise and fall of Tower Records
Loves: Documentaries, Tower Records, music
Likes: Colin Hanks
Dislikes: Tales of failure
Hates: Missing the past, standard editions
For most of my life, there was no Tower Records. Of course, the chain existed, but it didn't exist in my world, where I was shut off from such wonder in the suburbs of the east coast. Eventually, in my young adulthood, I discovered the New York City versions, and we got a few of our own on Long Island, noteable for the long lines waiting outside for Ticketmaster sales. Making up for lost time, I spent several nights a week there, looking over the movies (the origin of my Criterion obsession), listening to the new music and exploring genres I'd never been exposed to. I was also somewhat in awe of the staff--gatekeepers to this world of culture, who got paid to do what I might do for free.
And then, it was all gone.
It was hard to understand from the outside, as it always seemed like there were people shopping the stores. How could something so big and so established just disintegrate? All Things Must Pass, directed by the almost-as-likable-as-his-dad Colin Hanks, unravels the story, going back to beginning and Tower's origin in the back of a drug store, hurtling through the go-go ‘70s and ‘80s, and crashlanding at the chain's finale. Along the way, founder Russ Solomon, a variety of long-time employees, and a handful of famous fans, including Sir Elton John, Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen, provide commentary, analysis and memories of a social musical experience unlikely to ever be repeated in a downloading and streaming world.
Part of the reason for the chain's success (and ultimately its failure) was an extremely loose corporate culture, the exploration of which makes up the most entertaining portions of the film. Working for Tower was apparently a non-stop party, and, as a result, the film is loaded with colorful voices with plenty of stories to share. You also get a very clear idea of where things started to go bad and who might be to blame, as well as, surprisingly, something of a late-game redemption, preventing the film from being simply a eulogy to fans of physical media.
At the same time as the film is telling the story of Tower's growth and demise, it also charts the history of the music industry, from the sale of three-cent vinyl to the establishment of Napster, and all the fits and starts in between, including the first death of the record, the role of the single in a musical revolution and how the damage brought on by mp3s may pale in comparison to the self-inflicted wounds record labels caused. The two stories are intermingled smoothly by Hanks and his team, who mix first-person perspective with a wealth of archival content to make a corporate story utterly personal and intimate. He also manages to paint a clear picture of exactly why the Tower stores were so special to the customers who frequented them and the people who worked there (interviewing several participants in closed Tower stores, amping up the poignancy). Based on the feel he has for the subject, it would be hard to believe that Hanks wasn't a regular, but he wisely kept himself out of the picture, ensuring the focus was right where it belonged.
The standard edition of All Things Must Pass arrives on one DVD, packed in a standard keepcase. The disc sports a static, anamorphic widescreen menu with options to play the film, select scenes and adjust the setup. Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks,while English SDH subtitles are available.
The anamorphic widescreen image here is quite sweet, boasting a lot of fine detail and some rather lush color (all the better to depict Tower's signature yellow and red.) The mix of archival news footage, photos and home video, wrapped around new, stylishly-shot footage is presented without concern on this DVD, making for a film that's definitely easy on the eyes.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track's main responsibility, aside from ensuring all the voices are crisp and easily understood, is to boost the great music heard here and there, via amplification in the surrounds. Mostly made up of interviews, the film isn't turning the audio world on its head, but it introduces no problems and keeps the presentation neat and orderly, letting songs like Marlena Shaw's glorious "California Soul" wash over the room with distinct, strong tones.
On the earlier DVD (and Blu-ray as well), there were outtakes and additional interviews to check out. The point of releasing this version, with no extras, isn't exactly clear.
The Bottom Line
It's hard to say whether a first-hand experience of Tower Records is required to enjoy its story, but it sure does help, as the nostalgia for days gone by is the handtruck fuel that powers this film. Even so, there are some great personalities, some entertaining big names and an intriguing tale where no one involved comes out looking so great, so you know some weird stuff went down. Even if you've never been to a record store in your Millennial life, Hanks' All Things Must Pass does a great job of making you wish you could swing by a Tower Records tonight. Of course, with a better version out there that actually has extras, this one can only be recommended so highly.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.