Once upon a time in America, record stores were popular and profitable. Those were the days when people bought recorded music in physical formats.
In the 2000s, the free distribution of digital music files via the Internet shook up the music business. People don’t normally pay for something they can get for free. Hard times for record companies, recording artists and, the former end point for music sales, record stores.
During the glory days of record sales, Tower Records loomed over the retail landscape. The international chain’s deep-stock locations included a two-story store in the French Quarter. True to the localism the company fostered, the New Orleans location dedicated a room to New Orleans and Louisiana music, albeit shared with blues and classic rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll.
For music fans, Tower Records on North Peters Street, as well as the nearby Louisiana Music Factory, were destinations. The locally owned Louisiana Music Factory survives still, but Tower in the Quarter closed in 2006, the year the chain went out of business.
Colin Hanks, son of actor Tom Hanks, loved Tower Records enough to make an exhaustive documentary about the company. In “All Things Must Pass,” Hanks, as documentarians and biographers often do, lets his affection for his subject run over. The film probably is for record aficionados only.
In conventional talking-heads style, Hanks interviews former Tower executives who rose through the ranks and helped shape the company’s decades of success. They all loved their jobs. While a representative sampling of happy stories is appropriate, “All Things Must Pass” has too many of them. And telling it like was is never as effective and showing it like it was. A good supply of vintage photos and film partially negates the overabundant, redunant talk.
Russ Solomon, Tower’s music-loving founder, serves as the documentary’s principal talking head. He amiably guides us from his company’s small start in his father’s drugstore through its international expansion and demoralizing collapse.
As in any business, even one based in the intangible love of music, numbers and dates also tell the story. Solomon opened the first store in 1960. From Sacramento, California, he expanded to San Francisco, Los Angeles and across the U.S. Before its bankruptcy, the chain operated 200 stores in 30 countries.
Solomon had great timing through most of Tower’s life. In the 1960s, teens and children bought millions of records. Music played an essential role in their young lives. Tower’s motto: No music, no life.
As the ’60s continued, pop music entered a gold and platinum era of artistry. The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and more immensely popular, increasingly creative recording stars deserved to be called artists. Tower, naturally, sold the artists’ full-length musical statements, aka albums, for more than the 45 rpm singles that dominated the 1950s and early ’60s. Tower’s profits grew. In 1999, the company earned nearly $1 billion. In on-camera interviews, celebrity fans Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Dave Grohl echo the chain’s popularity, expressing their reverence for Tower.
Director Hanks also details Tower’s decline and fall. As with any death in any family, there are poignant scenes.
Miraculously, and even as George Harrison’s sweet and sad “All Things Must Pass” mourns on the documentary’s soundtrack, there’s a silver lining. If you don’t already know about this curious Tower twist, you’ve probably got to see it to believe it. Many smiles.