SXSW 2015 Review: ‘All Things Must Pass’ Watches Tower Tumble
If you were born at least 20 years ago you probably have some memories of Tower Records. For me it was Tower Video. I would leave school at lunch every Tuesday to rent the new release movies and make it back in time for class. I suppose I would be just as nostalgic for a documentary about Blockbuster Video or Sam Goody, and this documentary on the Tower Records business suggests that any of the closed megachains may have a story that goes beyond business alone.
Director Colin Hanks interviews the surviving founders and original employees of Tower Records, tracing its origin from a drug store that sold records to a thriving business. Fortunately a lot of Tower Records’ life was documented and there is amazing footage and still photography of Tower stores back in the day. Seeing the Sunset Blvd. store under construction is the birth of a landmark to me. Too bad they didn’t show the construction of the Annapolis store of my youth, but at least I got to visit the Sunset shop before it closed.
Where All Things Must Pass really hooked me was in discussing and portraying the social environment a record store represented. This was my experience, whether renting movies or looking through the soundtrack section. It’s a history of pop culture too as the business of Tower was tied to significant albums like Magical Mystery Tour and Pet Sounds (which itself has a narrative film at SXSW. Synergy!). Celebrity musicians comment on the value of Tower both for making their own work successful, and for discovering the artists who inspired them. There’s film of Elton John shopping for records! And somehow he has more hair now than he had in the ‘70s.
Hanks must be a great interview because all of the soundbites he gets are descriptive and emotional. Of course, this is a family business so there is passion from all the subjects, but I’ve seen many documentaries with dry soundbites and sometimes it’s because they just weren’t asked the right questions. It’s also what I do for a living so I know what an interview sounds like when the subjects are engaged. He uses music unobtrusively, when I’m sure it was tempting to insert it more aggressively.
If you’re thinking it was Napster and iTunes that drove Tower out of business, you will be in for a surprise. The real cause was sadly more mundane, relating to bad investments. It’s all the more tragic because Tower was just trying to bring the love of music to more communities, but they overextended. Based on their adaptation to compact disc, I suspect Tower could have thrived in the digital music age selling accessories and download cards. There is a silver lining though as Japan kept their Tower franchises, so there’s a bonus for international travelers.
My specific relationship to Tower Video isn’t even a component in the documentary. I’m sure there is a good DVD extra about their video business, which adapted from VHS to DVD but likewise never lived to see streaming become the primary home viewing format. Whatever your experience with Tower was, you’ll be able to recognize some of it in All Things Must Pass, and if you never had a Tower Records near you, I bet this film will make you miss them anyway.