Saturday, November 28, 2015

All Things Must Pass

Alternate Title:  The Importance of Things Baby Boomers Liked

One sentence synopsis:     Russell Solomon and the original employees of Tower Records reflect on its creation, reign, and dissolution.

Things Havoc liked: I see an average of about one documentary per year, usually whenever I am coming off a rough stretch at the regular theaters, and with the worst Bond film in living memory directly in my rear-view mirror, this seemed like a good time. The difficulty with documentaries, like with anything really, is that a lot of them are poorly made, or thinly disguised polemical rants hurled at a paying audience with no attempt made at objectivity. So it was that, rather than see a movie about how the filmmaker is the only person in the world endowed with morals in a world comprised of sheeple, I thought that I would go and see one on a subject that nobody ever gets passionate or argumentative about: the music industry.

Tower Records, for those of you too young to remember it, was once a giant of the music industry, a chain that was not a chain, half music emporium, half shrine to the mystical glories of popular music, an empire that grossed a billion dollars in the last year of the 20th century before ceasing to exist five years into the 21st, and All Things Must Pass, taken from the metaphysical slogan that accompanied its final liquidation, is a chronicle of its lifespan, from its creation in 1960 by Russ Solomon, who sold records off of a jukebox in his father's drugstore, becoming more and more successful until he finally bought out his father and re-purposed the enterprise entirely around music. It walks through interviews with the major employees, in the main hired as young school-age dropouts in the throes of the sixties, who started working there because they loved music and because the store had no dress code or maximum hair length, and wound up executives and regional directors in their forties through sheer time commitment and the fact that promotion was all internal. There's a vibe here of the kids being given the candy store, as the major figures of the company are all either scene-sters who were looking for a cool place to work, and found one that would let them spin off a casual million or two to go build major stores in Japan, or party-crazed kids who fell into music accidentally when they discovered a job that didn't care how drunk you got or how many drugs you took as long as you showed up to work.

Tower was important to more than just the employees, however, and it's the music artists that stud the film with their memories of the store that really cement how important Tower Records was to the industry at large. Dave Grohl, of the Foo Fighters, first entered music by working in a Tower Records and experiencing the small world that existed around it. Bruce Springsteen describes knowing that he had made it when his records first appeared in Tower, and using the store's stock and displays as a barometer of not only how he was doing but how all of his contemporaries were as well. Meanwhile, Elton John, whose career spanned the lifetime of Tower, assures us with perfect certainty that he spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being, and we must believe him. He makes the place sound like a cross between Studio 54 and a shrine to music, and seems genuinely torn up by its demise, intoning that there was never any place like it before and never will be again.

Of course the title is indicative of where this all leads, and as documentaries on the rise and fall of companies go, All Things Must End is one of the more honest when it comes to the inevitable demise of its subject. Blame is spread fairly evenly all around, from Solomon himself, who lost his best friend/accountant and, without his advice, made business decisions that were less than ideal, to the general tenor of the financial times in the years before the first crash, where businesses were encouraged to take fantastic-sized loans no matter the risk. The prevailing wisdom, of course, in regards to record stores in general, is that the internet, piracy, and worthless kids who didn't appreciate brick and mortar stores killed them all, but the film does not allow such facile reasoning to infect its narrative. Yes, Napster and the like did their damage to Tower's sales, but many of the former employees reflect on the fact that the record industry itself created Napster by doing away with Singles sales, preferring to force people to buy $19 CDs containing a single song worth listening to, confident that there was no other way for people to get their music. When Napster did show up, the industry refused to lower prices to match the new reality, instead concentrating on suing people away from piracy. Tower, and the industry in general, failed to adapt to the changing technology, and despite actually having the first online music store in the world, they fell into the trap of so many businesses I watched or was a part of in those years, businesses who were overtaken by bank-mandated "restructuring experts" of little talent and less intelligent, who through malice, incompetence, or greed, systematically destroyed what was left of the company in the pursuit of some sort of quixotic MBA-school mandate to "increase branding" or something similar. By the time they were done, there was only a carcass of a company left to pick over.

Things Havoc disliked: In describing the origins of Tower Records, All Things Must End does a fine job, as it does in describing its ultimate demise and what legacy it left behind. But unfortunately, the middle sections of the film lag significantly behind these two elements, as the film drags into a fairly slow repetition of new location selected - store opens - young aimless kid gets hired there - store does really well - young aimless kid becomes responsible adult thanks to Tower Records - repeat. I recognize we're here to chart the business, by and large, but the movie seriously repeats its "nobody thought we could put a store in Sacramento/San Francisco/Seattle/Manhattan/Tokyo/Buenos Aires/London, but we did!" shtick about a dozen times before it's finally time for the business to collapse and the movie to end. At a certain point, we're not here for a Business School case study, we're here to watch a documentary about one of the more culturally-influential institutions of our times, and while there's some effort made by the above-mentioned artists and the company executives to ground us in the epochal nature of what we're being shown, the film really seems to rely on the notion that you already know what Tower Records was, and how special it was to Baby Boomers everywhere. Not being a Boomer myself, I had certainly heard of Tower, but I don't believe I'd ever been in one, and I remarked on its passing as I would have any other large store that collapsed (who remembers Good Guys and Blockbuster?). Maybe I'm just not in tune with the world. Or maybe, conversely, we should re-think just how sacred everything that Baby Boomers liked in their youth really ought to be.

Final thoughts:  But now I'm just being unfair, and while All Things Must Pass is not a great documentary on the level of Searching for Sugar Man, it is a solid enough one to be worth a watch. The subject matter necessarily renders it somewhat restricted in its purview, and indeed, I had to contort my schedule quite a bit just to be able to see it. But if we judge a film's qualities based on whether it told us a story worth listening to and did so well, then there are far worse things one can do with two hours of your time than sitting back and getting a glimpse of a cultural world as it used to be, and hearing from the people for whom it was a special place, even if those people don't include yourself.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Time:  We were there at the beginning.  We will be there for the ending...

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