Colin Hanks didn’t mean to pit his directorial debut, a star-studded documentary about the rise and fall of legendary music retailer Tower Records, in direct box-office competition with his father’s latest Oscar-bait performance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which also opened in limited theaters this weekend. “Total coincidence, obviously. I would not plan that in any way, shape or form,” Hanks (the younger) says. Then, after a beat, “But I’m thinking we’re gonna have a higher per-screen average because they’re in over 2,000 theaters. So I like our odds.” What’s good, Tom Hanks?
All Things Must Pass, which aims to tell the definitive oral history of Tower Records from its unlikely origins in a Sacramento drug store to its glory days of cocaine-fueled rock-and-roll excess to its final, stunning downfall in 2006, seems like an odd first project for Hanks. The actor—who finished up an acclaimed run last season as police deputy Gus Grimly on FX’s Fargo and currently co-stars in the CBS comedy Life in Pieces—never worked at the store, though he wanted to, badly. He applied at two different L.A. locations while in college but never got a callback. “They both said the same thing: ‘Look. We can give you this application, you can fill it out, and we’ll put it on top of this gigantic stack of applications—but I’m telling you right now that there are so many people in front of you that we will never call you,’” Hanks recalls.
Still, Hanks has his own personal Tower Records story--that personal connection so many have to the bright red and yellow logo, the listening booths, and those endless aisles of cassette singles and CDs. “When the stores were closing, I was bummed because it was something from Sacramento,” he says with hometown pride. “I was talking with an old family friend of mine and she said in passing, ‘Gosh, I can’t believe it all happened in that drug store.’ And I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’” Hanks soon met Russ Solomon, the owner and driving force behind Tower Records’ staggering success (and, to a certain degree, its devastating demise), whose father got in the business by selling used 78 RPM vinyls. With his larger-than-life personality and clear-eyed recollection of both his successes and mistakes, Solomon provided a natural focal point for a documentary.
What started as a jukebox side project in Sacramento’s Tower Theater in the early ‘60s blossomed into a $1 billion international industry (and of course, the ultimate cool-kid place to work) by the mid-nineties, when Hanks was in college. As we hear first-hand from character after colorful character in the film--from music celebrities with a soft spot for the iconic ketchup-and-mustard signage, including Bruce Springsteen, David Geffen, Elton John and ex-Tower employee Dave Grohl, to lowly clerks who rose through the ranks and became vice presidents--Tower remains a complicated and potent symbol of the days of in-person music sharing and discovery.
Springsteen remembers the chain’s famous Sunset Boulevard location as a “Lost Boys Club” for young musicians and recalls watching hungrily as hordes of customers rifled through bins of vinyl records. “It’s that place where your dreams meet the listener,” he says somewhat battily, banging his fist on a table and grinning. “That audience you dreamt of is walking through the door right now.” Grohl recalls Towers’ merciful lack of dress code for employees, which made it the only place a long-haired, grunged-out teenage Grohl could get a job. And Elton John, who describes Towers’ closing as “one of the greatest tragedies of my life,” says with the faintly indignant air of wronged royalty, “I spent more money at Tower Records than any other human being.”
And there are stories of wild, swinging ‘70s excess: young couples having sex in the listening booths, employees expensing cocaine under the name “Hand Truck Fuel,” and vice president Bud Martin’s secluded “office within his office” where he’d take young female secretaries and “boink ‘em,” as former vice president Heidi Colter recalls. “It was so flamboyantly bad that it had to be a joke,” Colter laughs, not long after describing her first days working at the Sacramento store, when men ruled the company and women were required to wear skirts. “No excuses, no period stuff. I went into labor twice behind the counter,” she says. “First female hired, first female vice president!”
But it’s in documenting the ultimate fall of Tower Records that All Things Must Pass proves most insightful. “I realized there was this big misconception that it was simply Napster that ‘killed the music industry,’” Hanks says. “It wasn’t just that. It was a series of events going back as far as 1980 with the introduction of the CD that really sort of set off this chain of events that down the road led to Towers’ demise.” CDs allowed retailers like Target and Wal-Mart to get into the music business--and for a cheaper selling price than Tower Records was willing to compete with. “What they should have done was lower the CD prices,” Geffen tells the camera. “But they didn’t.”
Even after the dawn of Napster and online music piracy, Solomon’s belief in people’s general willingness to pay $18 for a CD stubbornly persisted. A colleague explains that Solomon thought people would always want physical record collections--an unsound prediction that ignored the rise of mp3 players. Resentment began breeding within the company when Solomon installed his eldest son, Mike, as CEO after a heart bypass surgery sidelined him for most of 1998. Then banks came calling to collect interest on the massive loans Tower had used during its aggressive worldwide expansion in the 1990s. By 2004, Tower Records had filed for bankruptcy. By 2006, the company had been bought out and liquidated.
“In the film industry, we’ve been looking at the music industry and going, ‘How do we avoid that?’” Hanks says, explaining what made going into “the minutia of the music industry” so exciting to him. He adds, “I wanted to tell the story of why they’re really gone as well as take the audience on a journey with these characters so that when these stores close, it’s much more heartfelt than just a physical store shutting down.”
The uphill battle to secure funding for the film would have spooked a less ballsy first-time director--turns out, a movie about a subject known for losing a lot of money is a tough sell in Hollywood, especially in 2008. “The economy had just gone into the dumps, documentary films were not viewed as easily as they are now, on Netflix,” Hanks recalls. “The finances obviously were an issue and were always an issue but ultimately I think the biggest issue was that Tower Records was not that far in the rearview mirror.” Where Hollywood failed, Kickstarter came in with the help of 1,686 backers who pledged $92,025 for the creation of the film--and the rest is history.
As for Solomon, his music empire has not completely been felled. Thousands of miles away in Japan, where kids still dig American music enough to buy CDs, 85 Tower Records stores still flourish. It’s not wholly surprising: Japanese people coined the simple, profound, comical slogan still affiliated with Tower Records today: “No music, no life.”