Gravitas Ventures/Company Name (October 16 2015), Filmrise/MVD (September 13 2016), single DVD edition, 96 mins, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Not Rated (noted for strong language), Retail: $19.99
The history of the original packaged media superstore is told through anecdotal interviews with those who were there, from its meteoric rise to its unfortunate decline in the new millennium.
The Sweatbox Review:
So, yeah…what’s a site like Animated Views doing in covering a documentary about a record store chain in the first place? Well, indulge us for this brief review, if you will, since Tower Records was the formative place that many of us would have purchased our first CDs, LaserDiscs and DVDs of all the films, animated or otherwise, that we loved. I was very lucky to have been able to visit flagship stores in Los Angeles, New York and – a store I used to spend way too much time and money in – London, which for a long time in the late 1980s and into the 1990s (before it was bought out by Virgin Megastores), was the only place one could find US imports of Criterion’s revolutionary LDs without huge shipping charges and levies.
Racks upon racks of the latest and greatest catalog Lasers lined up waiting to be taken home, from my favorite film of all time, Superman: The Movie, to the Ultimate Oz collection and any number of Disney’s impressive big box sets, right next to a huge selection of old and new original soundtrack vinyl records and newfangled Compact Discs. This was the way us old-school collectors dabbled in their hobby, before the internet came along and made ordering online the easier route, practically wiping out such brick and mortar stores in the process. Amazon and the like replaced the smaller book chains first, but it wasn’t long before packaged media followed, although this wasn’t the only thing that led to the mighty Tower Records’ demise.
Filling us in on the whole story is Colin – Son Of Tom – Hanks’ warm and heartfelt documentary, All Things Must Pass: The Rise And Fall Of Tower Records, which smartly uses a George Harrison song as its title most appropriately. I’ve been a fan of Hanks the younger for a while now, and was pleased he got good exposure as one of the leads in the first season of the incredible and quite exquisite television reimagining of Fargo. I don’t want to keep making comparisons with his Beatle-fan Dad, but it’s clear the appreciation of music has been passed down, from this film’s title (actually borrowed from a final poignant note left of the marquee of one of the last stores to close) to its subject and treatment thereof, with a deep rooted authenticity apparent for not only the music itself but the collecting culture and the genuine feel of someone who knew what it was like to frequent and hang around good old fashioned record stores.
But while Hanks manages to convey the warm and fuzzy feeling of what it was like to operate or shop in even the hugest record store, the documentary’s approach itself doesn’t exhibit too many unique touches, running fairly linearly through the life of the company without too many fancy visuals and only occasional graphics, something that Hanks may simply not have been too interested in pursuing anyway or that the Kickstarter budget may not have stretched to. Not that this is a particularly negative point, since the result is a coherent run through Tower’s chronological history, from starting out as a stack of records in the corner of founder Russ Soloman’s Dad’s drugstore to being a worldwide brand itself, and the film pretty much never lets up a very zippy and fun pace from the outset.
There’s also a terrific amount of archival footage and photographs, charting not only Tower’s highs and lows over the years but that of the record industry and packaged media in general. It’s true that the film does begin to slow down after the chain’s expansion and eventual collapse, a result of a combination of new personnel in the executive ranks and emerging audio formats rather than the death of brick and mortar stores superseded by online retailers. But one gets the feeling that it was a fun ride getting there, and is again through the genial tone of this film and its participants, with many crazy shenanigans behind the scenes and stories of various acts of debauchery and other goings on that one might expect told through the anecdotal interviews from a host of Tower people, from Solomon himself through various clerks, executives and such famous faces as David Geffen, Bruce Springsteen, previous employee Dave Grohl and perhaps Tower’s most well-known frequenter, Elton John, who famously bought three copies of everything for each of his houses, and there’s an amusing radio ad narrated by none other than John Lennon, too.
However, just as one feels the digital photo world should be dominated by a Kodak or Polaroid company that saw change coming and jumped on the future, it’s a somewhat abstract feeling that we can’t buy this kind of film from a Tower Records website when the likes of Amazon came along only afterwards to fill the gap left by this previous Goliath of stores. It seems that huge expansion coupled with management missteps and a board that didn’t see a potential in embracing a move into the online realm was what drove the company out of business: nowadays even the smallest stores promote themselves and sell their wares via the internet. Tower, it seems, was the victim of its own success, although pleasingly the film does conclude with a rebirth of sorts, with Solomon visiting Japan, where the Tower Records name remains a strong brand and still stands for the place where music lives.
Is This Thing Loaded?
This being one of MVD’s “standard edition” DVDs, the answer is, sadly, no. A slightly more stacked Blu-ray is available, as with many of their titles, but the idea with these discs simply seems to make the same content available on the older format in extremely basic versions.
As basic as the disc, with plain but uncluttered disc art and a front poster image that immediately tells you what the film is about.
Ink And Paint:
Again as a simple, barebones disc designed to show off the main feature and nothing else, you’d hope that the compression monkeys would allow the film to breathe in even just standard definition, but the results here seem to be a little more restricted than usual. Certainly MVD’s Elstree 1976 disc looked as pristine as DVD gets, while here things are a little more digital looking, a surprise for a film that’s largely static talking heads.
Even the black text screens exhibit a general amount of mosquito noise, with an understandably low bitrate that might have been upped a bit more to accommodate the inherent (and apparently intentional) graininess of the images. It’s not something that would be off-putting to those just wanting to see the documentary just one time, but those seriously interested in this film in the first place would probably be looking at the Blu-ray or a Digital HD file anyway.
Available in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround configurations, it’s only in some of the music that any real discernible differences may be felt, since this is such a talk-heavy soundtrack to begin with. When the music kicks in, it makes itself heard with adequate punch, although both can be said to be true of either mix. English subtitles are optional.
Since MVD are continuing with the issue of these vanilla versions of recent documentaries, there’s no denying there’s probably a market for these titles just for those curious to see them, and who don’t have Netflix or other kinds of digital accounts or want to shell out on higher-cost Blu-rays just for a one time viewing, which is kind of why I find the list price of $20 to be on the costly side when a better edition is available for just five or ten dollars more. I’m not sure who exactly might spring for these discs since, as mentioned above, I think those hardcore Tower fans would be just the type of people that would seek out such a Blu-ray edition. Placed lower as the budget versions that they are at, say, a $9.99 price point, I think even more people might be curious enough to click on a title and add it to a larger order, although naturally the subject matter will be the biggest attraction one way or another. Tower has a long and interesting story to tell through the origins of packaged media, and Hanks has fashioned an entertaining trawl through this history. If you’re still the kind of guy or gal who gets excited when Record Store Day comes around, you might just get a kick out of revisiting Tower Records again.