It is unknown just how many copies of George Harrison’s 3LP masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, made their way through Tower Records. Considering how ground-breaking the late Russ Solomon was on not just the record-selling industry but the music around it, quite a few probably did make their way into the hands of vinyl lovers and CD enthusiasts alike. For musicians and listeners alike, Tower Records was a beacon of culture and a rare opportunity for the drab and dull shopping day to turn into an extraordinary opportunity to discover like-minded people and discover new avenues of music. That does happen today, even with the rise of streaming, the comeback vinyl made would see stores like HMV survive. No such luck for Tower Records, this Colin Hanks documentary explores why.
Hanks answers that question relatively quickly. Overexpansion and missing the boat of the vinyl resurge are just two of the problems Solomon and his brave faces behind the board had to deal with. Keen he may be to show the high points and the drug culture synonymous with music ebbing into the stores that sold records, Hanks takes a varied approach. He charts the ups and downs not exclusively, but has a good knowledge of the history of Tower Records, to the point where connecting the dots between what caused the downfall and what could have saved it are painted rather clearly. Vox pops with famous faces like Elton John and Dave Grohl are inevitable for a piece focusing on a film that sold their works, but their inclusions come from a place of love for a store linked far more closely with musicians than first thought.
They do not overpower the documentary but underscore it. Clearly, they have a connection to this place that goes beyond what someone would usually feel for a risky store turned international business. All Things Must Pass charts the rise and rise of Tower Records exceptionally well and begins to airbrush a few of the later moments. It is successful in bringing the audience’s attention to the glaring issues that faced the industry at the turn of the century but does little to reflect on that. Solomon and former colleagues comment on Knapster and digital streaming and the real surprise there is that they hold no grudge. They have accepted it as the next stage of music and how it is sold. Hanks does well not to capitalise on the emotionally strangled moments here but gives it enough credence to make for a rewarding insight into how record store owners failed to adapt.
A failure to adapt in this instance was not through negligence or rejection of changing tides but a hopelessness to it. A physical store cannot stock a digital product. All Things Must Pass, and Tower Records did. It is back now, in a scaled-back, digital form. Fight fire with fire and mark up the value of the vanity mugs and t-shirts that come along with businesses that encapsulate a period of pop culture. That is what Tower Records did with CDs, marking up albums and refusing to sell the singles on their own. It was a failure to adapt to that and the boom of streaming that kicked them to the kerb, and it is both chilling and refreshing to see modest men and women who toured the globe with success reflect on their shortcomings with truth and sincerity. Hanks gets the best out of a difficult subject matter, one that, for some featured within, is still too raw to talk about.