We’re now far enough away from the total collapse of the music industry that we are routinely seeing levelheaded examinations of the forces most frequently cited for its downfall. Alex Winter’s Downloaded brought a sympathetic but frank angle to the Napster saga that music execs like to hold up as the moment the industry crumbled and now Colin Hanks is following in its steps with All Things Must Pass, a heartfelt tribute to Tower Records, the former retail giant that fell to its own expansionist hubris along with the labels that emboldened it.
Charting the origins of Tower Records from an expansion to founder Russ Solomon’s father’s pharmacy to a billion dollar international empire, All Things Must Pass is exhaustive but never exhausting. Hanks wisely lets the Tower Records “family” tell its own story, with minimal intrusion from famous talking heads (Dave Grohl, Elton John, and David Geffen are pretty much the bulk of the celebrity interviewees, all because of very personal connections to the chain). This enables the film to feel very organic, like a documentary of a family reunion where everyone exchanges favorite anecdotes and pays tribute to their benevolent patriarch but doesn’t shy away from conceding the mistakes of the past.
As the film shows, Tower Records’ success can be attributed not merely to Russ Solomon’s entrepreneurial vision but also his willingness to embrace his employees’ dreams for the company. A tremendous amount of credit is also attributed to the more business oriented, logical perspective of original CFO Bud Martin, making the pair a kind of Lennon-McCartney for the music retail world. The employees who spoke for the documentary make it clear that Tower was an exciting company to work for if you could handle the hard partying atmosphere, but it was also a company where everyone prided themselves on doing the best possible job. Most of the top leadership at the company in its prime came up from record clerk and shipping and receiving jobs, so the company literally grew with its employees, making it a true family affair.
These employees also basically agree that what did Tower in was its rapid expansion and the accumulation of debt to fund that expansion, as well as Bud Martin’s resignation. Bud had advised against building up so much debt, but Solomon was so committed to making the company as large as possible that when Bud exited the picture he was left unchecked. The film does explore the Napster impact on retail too, but the interview subjects basically all agree that the expansion and the nonstop price increases for CDs killed Tower and Napster just helped push it over the edge.
Though the infectious love for the company the employees still have makes All Things Must Passvery enjoyable, the film could stand to present more of the darker elements of the company, specifically the impact its rapid expansion had on mom and pop record stores across the world. Tower employees address their frustration with big box stores like Best Buy selling CDs at much lower prices and the impact that had, but they don’t mention the similar devastation they wreaked on local stores themselves. Nonetheless, for many, Tower was their first record store and it’s not hard to see why the company is still so beloved by record geeks and musicians, making All Things Must Pass a must-see for anyone with even a passing interest in the music business.
That said, younger music fans who may not even remember a time when Tower Records were nearly as ubiquitous as Starbucks currently are may not get what all the fuss is about. Unlike similarly minded works, such as Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ vital oral history I Want My MTV, All Things Must Pass lacks deep cultural context. This is a documentary that is focused to a fault, skewing a little too close to the affectionate nostalgia end of the spectrum, never quite justifying its subject’s importance to the uninitiated. It could be that Hanks was too close to the subject and not confident enough as a director to tease out relevant digressions or that the larger question of what really killed the music industry was too intimidating to even get within the general vicinity of. Ultimately, All Things Must Pass is a charming documentary on a fondly remembered business that frequently comes close to being a definitive examination of the downfall of an entire retail sector.
All Things Must Pass is in select theatres starting this Friday, October 16th. Check listings on the film’s site for local screenings. Portions of this review originally ran as part of our SXSW coverage.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.