Sacramento can lay claim to at least two signal contributions to American culture: Joan Didion and Tower Records. Actually, Tower qualifies as a contribution to global culture. It continues to prosper in Japan. It once prospered in the States and a lot of other places, becoming a billion-dollar company. Then it didn't, filing for bankruptcy in 2004. That's the story Colin Hanks tells in his lively and loving documentary, "All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records."
Tower was a commercial enterprise that was a kind of community. Those red-and-yellow plastic bags (Tower owner Russ Solomon copied the colors from Shell Oil, and a friend designed the no-frills font) were like a stamp on your passport. They said I've been somewhere cool and fun — and I'm planning on going back right away.
Solomon, still going strong at 90, presides over this wildly amiable film no less than he presided over Tower. It truly was "the Russ bus," as one former Towerite says. With his corncob nose and fringe of white hair and beard, Solomon looks like a faintly depraved version of Pete Seeger. The comparison flatters both men.
Solomon describes taking over the record department at his father's drugstore. This was in 1960. He took over the name, too. Tower Drug was called that because it rented space in Sacramento's Tower Theater, whose exterior featured, yes, a tower.
Hung over in San Francisco one morning in 1967 after a cheerfully illicit night, Solomon noticed a storefront for rent. That's how Tower became a chain. Three years later, its best-known location opened, in West Hollywood, on the Sunset Strip. In the documentary, media mogul David Geffen recalls going to the store "three or four times a week."
Passion and inventory were Tower's secrets. It was the best of both mercantile worlds. The stores felt like mom-and-pop operations (assuming mom and pop were hip and high energy) yet they had warehouse-size selection. The staff cared about music even more than the customers did, and at Tower there was a lot of music to care about. The Boston store opened in 1987, at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Newbury Street — the building's exterior redone by Frank Gehry, no less — and its 39,000 square feet made it the biggest in the chain.
Rock stars loved Tower as much as rock fans did (jazz and classical fans, too). That familiar-sounding voice on a crazed and wonderful Tower radio promo from 1974? It's heard about halfway into the documentary. Yes, it belongs to John Lennon. There's enchanting footage of a noteb00k-bearing Elton John on a Tower shopping expedition around the same time. "Tuesday mornings I'd be at Tower Records at 10 a.m. — 9 a.m., in LA," he says.
Other talking heads paying tribute include Bruce Springsteen and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl (who worked in the Washington, D.C., store) Their participation testifies to the power of Tower — maybe also to that of Colin Hanks's father, Tom.
Most of the talking heads are onetime Tower employees. Their presence gives the film the feel of a home movie, as do the many snapshots and other archival photos and footage. This can be both good — a sense of intimacy and casualness — and bad. Where the first half of the documentary is vibrant and sure-handed, the second gets mired a bit in detail. The second half is also sad, as the arrival of Napster and then iTunes devastates a financially over-extended company.
Tower hasn’t died. Beside the Japanese franchise, it retains an online presence. Rome remains, even if the Roman Empire is no more. “I spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being,” we hear Elton John say. The regret in his voice isn’t about the expense. It’s about having to use the past tense.
★ ★ ★
ALL THINGS MUST PASS:
The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Directed by Colin Hanks. Written by Steven Leckart.
At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, casual obscenity, brief glimpse of female nudity).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.