In All Things Must Pass, a documentary on the rise and fall of Tower Records, Colin Hanks gives viewers an inside look at how one of music’s most prominent champions became an empire before eventually losing its fortune. At the center of the story is Russ Solomon, a man who took a side-business selling 78s out of his father’s drug store in Sacramento, California, and turned it into a global retail empire. Solomon’s surrounding cast are people who started as clerks before their wild ideas and relentless loyalty to Tower led to their roles as some of the company’s most valuable employees.
It took seven years for Hanks to see his project to completion. Along the way, he also directed a short documentary for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series on Crazy Crab, the San Francisco Giant’s anti-mascot for one season in 1984, and also acted in critically-acclaimed shows like Mad Men, Dexter, and Fargo. Yet it was Tower Records that stayed closest to Hanks’ heart. Raised in part in Sacramento and twice denied employment by Tower once he’d moved south to Los Angeles, Hanks knew Tower was a subject that many could relate to. He shares his enthusiasm for the record store chain, as well as the collective heartbreak that resulted from the company’s abrupt bankruptcy and later liquidation in 2006.
Solomon and Tower are never treated as gods, and talking heads throughout the film all readily admit their hand in the decisions that led to its downfall. Still, All Things Must Pass is in large part a love letter to a place where Elton John would fill empty boxes with records before Tower opened every week; where a young Dave Grohl wasn’t forced to cut his hair when he was hired; and where Miles Davis received the same prominence as Michael Jackson — a place where music was king. Speaking by phone, Colin Hanks talked with us about the process of getting his documentary off the ground, how he chose who to feature in the film, and his thoughts on the state of record stores in 2015.
The central figure in your documentary is of course Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records. What was his initial reaction when you told him you wanted to do a feature-length film about his music store empire?
The first thing he said to us was that we were crazy. He said, “You’re crazy. I don’t know anyone who’s going to want to hear that story. But let’s do it.” This tells you two things about Russ Solomon. One is that he’s incredibly modest, because there are a lot of people that want to hear the story of Tower Records. I knew I wasn’t the only one, and I knew that it was a company that meant a great deal to a whole lot of people. It also shows that Russ Solomon isn’t afraid of a crazy idea; he never was. So much of what Tower was able to accomplish was based solely on the fact that Russ never heard an idea that he didn’t like. For a long time, he was really very good at being able to go out on that limb and trust people that had different ideas. Even if it wasn’t necessarily something that he quite understood or had thought about before, he was always open to new ideas.
In addition to interviews with many of Tower’s most influential executives, All Things Must Pass also features commentary from music legends Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Elton John. How did you decide to hone in on those three artists specifically?
Russ was very adamant that he wasn’t the sole person responsible for Tower. He introduced us to the people that he felt were just a small selection of the people that were very instrumental in making Tower what it was. One of the first stories that Stan Goman told us — he started as a clerk at 19 and helped build the Tower store with his bare hands and ended up becoming the COO of Tower — were the Elton John and the David Geffen stories. They would open the store early for Elton and Geffen who once took Stan up to his office to hear a test pressing of the first Eagles album. Those two artists obviously would make sense, and I refer to David Geffen as an artist as well, because that dude is a genius.
One of the things I wanted to be sure I avoided was front-loading the film with a bunch of different famous people telling the audience why Tower Records was so important. What I wanted to do was to find artists who could serve multiple purposes. [I wanted people] not just to talk about why Tower was special, but who could also tell us facets about Tower Records, that could speak to various points about Tower’s history. David Geffen was obviously able to do that, talking about the store opening up in San Francisco and also talking about the demise of Tower and the state of the music industry at that time. Elton obviously was one of the most famous customers at Tower Records. He has a very famous quote saying if he had it all over to do again, the job he’d love the most would be a job at Tower Records. I knew that if I was going to try and make the definitive Tower Records documentary, Elton should probably be in it. Dave Grohl I knew had been a [Tower] employee at some time, so that seemed like a no-brainer.
I asked Bruce Springsteen because he’s Bruce Springsteen. For lack of a better phrase, he is the kind of artist where whatever he wants to talk about, you listen. You try to pick stuff up from him. He’s one of these guys that can give you a really clear vision of what things are like. He does it in his music, he does it in his interviews, and he did it for us too. The irony was that when he sat down for the interview, he said, “I don’t know how many Tower stories I have.” I said, “Well, all I need is one, but I’ll ask you a bunch of questions, and we’ll see where we get.” I asked him one question, and he talked for 50 minutes, and that was pretty much all we needed.
All Things Must Pass is careful to mourn the institution of Tower Records without canonizing the group of people responsible for its success and subsequent failure. Likewise, you also touch on aspects of the industry, like the advent of Napster and the demise of the physical single, as contributing factors to Tower’s end, but there are no true villains in your story. Was that the narrative you expected to come out of the experience of making this film when you first started?
The narrative I was expecting to tell was a nuts-and-bolts history of the company. Company starts here, they expand here on this date, they then go to this place, they then expand out to this country, and they then get bigger and bigger. What I was not expecting was the human component of the film, which is really the heart and soul of the film to be honest, the fact that we speak to a group of people that start off as little kids and they dedicate their lives to this company only to fire themselves and watch the company be taken away from them. That was not necessarily something I was really prepared for. One of the goals of the film was to shed light on what really happened to Tower and what were the true factors that ended up bringing on its demise. I wanted to be able to explain that it was not simply just Napster that killed Tower Records. That’s not true. That’s part of it, yes, but that’s not the sole reason.
Some of the reasons are self-inflicted: It’s expanding, it’s taking on too much debt, it’s borrowing too much. At one point, it’s thinking that they can do no wrong — hubris, if you will. I definitely wanted to be able to explore that, and I also wanted to show patterns in the music industry that I don’t think many people really saw coming. I was in that last generation where I remember going into stores all the time, and I remember when they stopped selling CDs. By the time I got to college, Napster was around, which was sort of the first harbinger that things were not well in the music industry.
Really, the truth is that Tower and other records stores were pricing people out. They were pricing kids out. There are some people that don’t necessarily think of Tower as this great place; they think of it as this huge chain that tried to rip people off. But it didn’t start out that way, which is why I really wanted to be able to tell the history of the company and to tell the company’s story — that I did specifically want to do. What I then found out once I met Russ was that he was adamant that it was really this family that helped build Tower, and that’s when the film really took on a different shape.
There is a majorly cathartic moment towards the end of the film where Russ Solomon travels back to Japan to visit the country’s still-thriving chain of Tower Records stores [Ed note: Tower’s Japan stores went independent from the international chain in October 2002]. Was it your idea to have him go to Japan, and was it his first time seeing those stores since the 2006 liquidation of the US locations?
No, he had been back for an anniversary that Tower Japan had done I believe after the stores had closed, so I think he had been there since he had lost control of Tower here in North America. However, it was very evident to him and to us that this was going to be the last time he was going to see it. That was obviously very bittersweet. It was always my dream to take Russ to Japan and have that be a portion of the film, but I was never 100% sure that it was going to happen, both for financial reasons and because of Russ’ health, but Russ is a resilient guy.
He was incredibly excited to be able to go back and see a bunch of familiar faces. There are still people that work at Tower in Japan that were there at the beginning, when Tower started off in Japan, which was a big reason we chose to focus on Japan and not say Ireland, because I know there are two stores in Ireland, but those are wholly independent now. Japan actually featured very prominently in Tower’s history: what Tower was able to accomplish in Japan is pretty incredible, and again, nothing I knew about until I looked into it, so it seemed like a good place to end it.
I may be romanticizing things, but in 2015, I see independent records stores, like Amoeba Records in my hometown of San Francisco, faring very well thanks in part to things like Record Store Day and a resurgence in the demand for vinyl. Watching your documentary, I can’t help but think that had a few things broken differently, Tower might still be around today. Do you agree?
Well, I do agree. I do think that Tower could be around in some way, shape, or form, but keep in mind: my day is wearing makeup and pretending to be other people, so I don’t really know the intricacies so much of the business side of things. You could make an argument that if Tower records had started to sell CDs, and they had maybe not tried to save all 192 stores, and maybe seriously downsized to, I don’t know, 10, maybe they could still be around. But at that point, you’re still having to lay off thousands and thousands and thousands of employees, which is something that they didn’t want to do. Very rarely do you hear of a company downsizing from 192 to 10 — you don’t do that in business. So had they made that kind of game-changing decision, maybe they’d still be around.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
One of the things I keep saying to people I talk with about the film — I’m very adamant — is that record stores are not dead. They’re still very much around. There’s probably one in your hometown. I’m very fortunate to live in Los Angeles, where not only do we have Amoeba in Hollywood, but there are tons of other great records stores around town. I frequent a handful of them, but I also stream music as well because I’m a music fan. I use it as my listening station. I think record stores are still having a go at it. They’re still having a hard time trying to make ends meet, there’s no doubt about that, but they’re not completely dead. The way I like to think of it is that they’ve gone punk rock. They’re just a whole lot cooler.
Put a softer way, can you see a bit of what Tower was able to create in stores like Amoeba now? It feels sort of like they’re carrying that tradition on of having employees who are incredibly dedicated to music before all else and the love they put into displays. I feel like I can see Tower’s inspiration in what they do.
Oh, absolutely. That mentality, that Tower mentality, really is only known as the Tower mentality because they really embraced it, but that mentality that you’re talking about is basically the mentality of a mom-and-pop record store. That independent record store feeling is the kids that work there, the people that open the doors every morning, the kids that are the buyers for that store, and the kids that are in the in-house art department that decorate that store. Each store has its own unique vibe.
Tower Records, although it was a big chain, each location had its own art department, each location had its own buyer — there was no central buyer in Sacramento telling all the other stores, “Here’s what you need to get.” All the decisions were made at the store level and reported to Sacramento. So that independent feel was prevalent in all the Tower Records [stores], especially in those early days. That was one of the things that made Tower incredibly unique as a business, especially as a large-scale business, because it did get quite big. Five continents — that’s nothing to scoff at.
Its roots were in those small independent stores, and when you see a store like an Amoeba here in LA or up in the Bay Area where they have a very large inventory, a very knowledgeable staff, and an entire room dedicated to classical music and to jazz, and that’s very much in the Tower spirit and the Tower vein. It’s no wonder why I give them so much of my hard-earned money every week.