When I started buying music as a teen, The Wherehouse, Sam Goody, and Licorice Pizza could never compare to the joy of spending hours in a Tower Records looking for and listening to music. I had two Tower Records that I would frequent, the one in Costa Mesa near what was once Rock ‘N’ Java, and the Tustin Marketplace store. As an adult who spent and spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, the Tower on Sunset became a required stop during trips to Hollywood. Tower Records became a bastion of hope when after four days on the road during a road trip from Virginia to California, my friend Jimson and I had grown so sick of his music collection, we stopped at the Tower Records in Denver and loaded up on CDs that would give us the soundtrack that would get us home.
For those of you ho didn’t grow up around a Tower Records, it was a music mecca. Tower was known for low-priced music and a huge inventory that included all genres of music, as well as comedy and spoken word. You could find cool, off-beat magazines; books; and movies there too. The locations also housed a Ticketmaster kiosk, so on many a day and night my friends and I lined up, got wristbands, and waited to buy tickets to see the bands we loved.
At the end of the 1990s, Tower Records was still a thriving company with locations all over the world. But by 2006, the company had declared bankruptcy, the inventories of those stores had been liquidated, and the last Tower Records closed its doors. Tower’s customers were left with no second home, the skeletons of the stores that once were, as well as with the question, what happened to Tower Records?
In his documentary, All Things Must Pass, actor and director Colin Hanks attempts to answer that question by tracing the history of Tower Records from its humble beginning in a drug store in Northern California to its grim demise in the first decade of the new century. Hanks asked the fans and friends of Tower Records to help get the film made and took to Kickstarter to raise the funds for the documentary. The title of the film, also the name of George Harrison’s first solo album after the break-up of the Beatles, was a response by an employee at the Sacramento store about the closing of the store. The team at Sacramento decided it would be the last thing put up on the parking lot marquee.
In All Things Must Pass, Hanks combines archival footage and photos with interviews from Russ Solomon, the founder and CEO of Tower Records, along with many of the company’s key players who were there since the beginning. The film shows how a business can become successful when a company allows people to lead with passion and doesn’t worry too much about corporate trappings and trusts its employees.
There are also great interviews in the documentary with Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Elton John. Each one of them recounts their own experiences and memories of Tower Records and what the store meant to them. Grohl speaks not only as a fan of Tower, but also as a former Tower employee. Elton John was perhaps the most distraught over the closing of Tower Records since he would go to the Sunset store every Tuesday morning and shop for new music. He claims to have spent the most money at Tower and based on the footage of his buying trips, I believe him.
What I didn’t get too see enough of in this film was about the demise of Tower Records. Hanks spent a lot of time on the back story and the building of this music empire, but the story of the fall of this empire is not given nearly the same coverage in this film. Perhaps it is because the film parallels the slow rise and quick fall of Tower Records. I just expected a more dramatic ending other than Russ Solomon not being prepared for the changes that came to the music business and the company over-spending and over-expanding.
Some of the footage that is shown towards the end of the film appears to be corporate videos from Tower Records, the kind used to address the company a few times a year, but they are never explained. And while the beginning of the film does discuss that the movie was a multi-billion dollar company in 1999, it would have been nice to not just been told about the dollars, but about the number of Tower Records locations as well as the number of employees. The film stresses how Tower was still a big business that was a family business, so I was surprised not to hear about the number of “family members” that lost their jobs when the doors shut for good.
What we do find out in the end of the film is that Tower Records is still alive and well in Japan with over 85 stores throughout the country. What is not explained in the film is how Tower Records in Japan managed to stay afloat after it was sold off by the company. I wanted to hear a little bit more of that story. Who bought the Tower Records in Japan? Who is running those stores? Are any of the original Tower players involved with Japan?
I would have also liked to know where all of the key players in the history of Tower Records are now. Are they still working in the music business? Are they retired? We spend the entire documentary with these people who tell us about the history of place we love, and they he story ends, and there times with us ends. I wanted more.
The Costa Mesa Tower is now a Walgreen’s and the Tustin Marketplace Tower is a sushi restaurant. Driving by the skeleton of the Sunset store just makes me sad. While this film left me wanting more, what I really want is Tower Records back.