All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (2015)

(On Cable TV, November 2017) I think I’ve shopped at Tower Records once, while on a trip in Boston in 2005 or 2006, but as documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records plays out, describing the triumphs of the chain and its end at the hand of a changing retail landscape, I couldn’t help but flash back to the fate of Canadian chains Sam the Record Man (gone 2007) and HMV (gone 2017) and how I, even as a moderate music fan, enjoyed going to those stores. But the story specifically being told here is about Tower Records, the American chain that started in Sacramento in 1960 and grew to include a worldwide network of stores including iconic flagship locations in Los Angeles and New York. Told largely through interviews without an audible narrator (although some of the interviews sometimes break out of their structure and feature off-screen interjections), All Things Must Pass is an impressive documentary debut for Colin Hanks. The first half of the documentary is about the rise of the chain, and it’s great good fun: stores that were instantly popular upon opening, hijinks from young employees, various innovations from ground-floor people becoming corporate policies … it’s also a portrait of the music landscape for forty years, evolving through genres and styles. This fun first half inevitably leads to a considerably less amusing second half, as the music retail industry faces its digital reckoning in the early 2000s. Having run out of physical formats to upgrade, losing sales from inflated prices and being unable to compete with the convenience of online file-sharing platforms, Tower Records got stuck with heavy debts and dwindling revenue. Much of the last five years of the company are a swirl of things getting worse and worse, leading to the complete shutdown of the chain in late 2006. While All Things Must Pass doesn’t quite shy away from the various issues that destroyed the company (including brief mentions of bad management), it’s definitely an authorized history of the chain, meaning that it has access to the founder’s inner circle and does not feature any of the critics that could talk about Tower Records putting small stores out of business, or comment on the more salacious rumours surrounding the management’s mistakes. (Two interesting articles: Forbes’ 2006 commentary, and a skeptical look at the documentary, with great comments.) Still, the people featured on-screen are interesting, the documentary flows nicely from one thing to another, and it does manage to create a longing for record stores. I’m not given to nostalgia, but I do miss that I can’t go to Montreal or Toronto and wander the floors of HMV’s flagship stores. I do miss the posters, the deep inventory of obscure genres and the experience of being in a place dedicated to music. I suspect that, sometime in the future, there will be an interest for virtual recreations of such stores, algorithmically tied into digital inventories of available music. Until then, there’s All Things Must Pass to give all generations a taste of what it was to be in a record store.

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