Depending on when you came of age as a music fan, your feelings about Tower Records may vary wildly. If you were a teenager in the ’60s or ’70s, the store was a mecca for those who wanted huge, fully-stacked rows full of records like nothing they’d ever seen before. If you were growing up in the more cynical ’90s, you might have seen Tower as a corporate behemoth squeezing the cool local shops out of business–the real-life equivalent of the Music Town store in Empire Records. And if your teenage years took place in the mid-’00s, well, all you can do is wax nostalgic about a world you never knew–one in which a record store was the coolest place on Earth.
Colin Hanks’s documentary, All Things Must Pass, explores all three versions of Tower as it tells the cradle-to-grave tale of the chain: from its inception in 1960 in Sacramento to its 2006 liquidation, Hanks explores not just the cultural impact of Tower (and the record store as a business model), but also the impact that it had on the people involved. What could be a simple documentary retreading the well-told narratives about the cultural shifts that ended days of physical media, in Hanks’s hands, is a character study of people who built transformed a culture–at least for a little while.
Hanks dug deep on Tower to make the film, capturing the stories of the people who started as clerks and buyers, and spent their lives building the chain into an enterprise that spread over the world and brought a ton of music to a ton of fans. “I spent a ton of my time and money in Tower Records,” Hanks recalls on the phone a few days before the release of All Things Must Pass. “It was a place where I spent my money–I didn’t have a sweet tooth, so I just bought music.” So did a lot of other people–the film features appearances from avowed Tower fans like Dave Grohl, Elton John, and Bruce Springsteen–but getting into the inner lives of the people who made up this business was clearly a passion for Hanks.
“I didn’t expect it to go there either,” Hanks says of the character-driven documentary he ended up making. “That was really one of the surprises.”
Hanks and his crew went to Sacramento–his hometown, and the home of Tower–to talk to the company’s founder, Russ Solomon. “He said, ‘Okay, first off, you guys are crazy–no one wants to hear that story. But if you are gonna do that, you really need to talk to these other people who are much more responsible for Tower’s success than I am,’” Hanks recalls. With that in mind, he reached out to former Tower COO Stan Goman, who started working in the Sacramento store when he was 19 years old; Rudy Danzinger, who started with the company in 1958, when it was still a drug store; former VP Bob Delanoy, who started with the company in the warehouse; and more former employees. Once Hanks started talking to the staffers, he quickly found his movie.
“It really started to go in a different direction than I was anticipating, and I was relieved that it did,” he says. “It really put faces to what a lot of people just think of as this big company that went bankrupt. It changed the whole dynamic for me as a filmmaker, and quite frankly, as a human being–there was a lot of talk at the time I was making the film, when Lehman Brothers and car companies, and seemingly all of Western civilization was about to go bankrupt. There was a lot of talk about people losing their jobs and having to start over again when they’re 50, and to talk with people about that experience definitely opened my eyes to everything. I looked at businesses completely differently, and what it meant to dedicate your life to something–all those things. it ended up becoming much more personal to me as a result.”
Hanks’s connection to Tower Records goes back to his hometown, and growing up with some Sacramento pride as a result. “It was always a point of civic pride that Tower originated from Sacramento, and not San Francisco, not Los Angeles, not New York,” he recalls. “They had always been based there–they never relocated.”
Those without similar hometown ties to the chain might view it differently–as the war between corporate rock and the DIY mindset intensified in the ’90s (think Kurt Cobain wearing a homemade “corporate magazines still suck” T-shirt to a Rolling Stone photoshoot), Tower became an easy-to-demonize villain, selling mediocre CDs for $19 a pop. And while Hanks wasn’t thinking about putting a human face on a presumed bad guy, he was interested in exploring the difference between a business and the people who made the business run–and how often that gets misjudged.
“What I was trying to do was to show that throughout the course of a 40-year business, things are going to change and things are going to evolve. Obviously for a lot of people, toward the end, they were like, ‘Yeah, Tower Records, what a ripoff,” Hanks admits, “But that didn’t change the fact that each store was run in the opposite way most chain stores were, if you look at a lot of record stores from that time. You look at, like, a Wherehouse Music, they didn’t have a deep catalog. Music Plus was not a great record store, whereas Tower–yeah, the CDs were a little bit more expensive, but ultimately it was still run with this aesthetic where it wasn’t Russ Solomon telling everybody what to do. It was the kids in the store that were there early in the morning opening up those doors. They were the ones who were making that place what it was.”
The growth of Tower gave way to the fall of Tower, ultimately, and that’s a big part of the story that Hanks tells–but he’s careful not to point the finger strictly at the Internet and digital downloads as the reason for the end of the record store chain. Ultimately, in Hanks’s worldview, there are chains that better represent the sort of villain that some saw in Tower.
“There’s this misconception that Tower was this huge corporate giant that was taken down by Napster, but that wasn’t the sole reason why it disappeared,” Hanks says. “Part of that was the fact that everybody started selling CDs. When you have these gigantic corporate stores like Best Buy that make a majority of their money selling washers and dryers and, hey, let’s also sell CDs, we can sell them so cheap because we don’t really care, that really makes things much more difficult for Tower.”
There’s no shortage of musicians or famous faces who have fond memories of Tower Records–and with the chain a decade gone now, it’s even easier to find people who can wax nostalgic about the heyday of the stores. But Hanks was careful to use recognizable faces in moderation–and to make them count when he did.
“I was really adamant that I didn’t want just a barrage of famous people in the first four minutes of the movie telling the audience why this subject matter is important. I was operating under the assumption that it is important, and that’s why I’m making the film,” he laughs. “So I wanted very much to be strategic in how we used recording artists and ‘famous’ people to help tell our story.”
When it came to finding the faces he would use, Hanks stuck to those whose credibility in the music world is unassailable: he sticks to Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Elton John, all for different reasons. Springsteen as a fan of the store who would travel to the West Coast just to see it, Grohl as a former employee whose haircut meant that his employment options were limited, and Elton John as a customer who spent more money at Tower Records in his lifetime than anybody else. (“I knew that if I was going to make the definitive Tower Records documentary, I needed to get Elton John in there,” Hanks says.)
The perspective that those voices offer is important–who knows more about what’s cool in the music world than the Boss, or Dave Grohl, or Sir Elton? And that’s something that Hanks planned to take advantage of.
“Absolutely,” Hanks says if using those specific people was an intentional choice. “One of the things that I really wanted to bring across in these interviews was the fact that, when you were in that store, everyone was equal. They were all fans of music, all looking through the same bins.”