Like generations of record collectors, actor Colin Hanks was seriously bummed when a friend told him she'd walked by a going-out-of-business sale at New York's Tower Records store in 2006. The retail empire had opened in 1960 in the back of a drugstore; when the red-and-yellow, 89-store CD chain went bankrupt 46 years later, it had become so storied that Slash called it "the end of an era." (The young, future Guns N' Roses guitar hero had been arrested for stealing cassettes at the Tower in LA. Years later, he watched fans line up to buy the band's Use Your Illusion at the exact same store.) "I never knew its history," Hanks says. "I just knew it was from Sacramento, near where I grew up — and it had a great selection of records."
The revelation prompted the Emmy-nominated Fargo star to pitch founder Russ Solomon on a documentary on the rise and fall of what, for many music fans, was a key part of their formative musical education. The result: All Things Must Pass, a highlight of this year's SXSW Film Festival that plays as both an origin story and an epitaph for a retail empire. (Full disclosure: This Rolling Stone writer is interviewed in the film.)
The first hour plays like a comedy, detailing how Solomon hired a ragtag crew of music fanatics — shaggy-mustached hippies and rock-obsessed outcasts — as clerks in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and helped turn them into managers and executives. Bruce Springsteen talks about how L.A.'s Tower felt like home when he and the E Street Band first arrived in California; Dave Grohl recalls that it was the only place that would hire him due to his long hair; and Elton John, a regular since the Seventies, estimates he has spent more money at Tower than anyone ever. But the stars are Solomon and his employees, who are filmed reminiscing about the good times and visibly tearing up when discussing the bad times.
Hanks and his crew, including producer Sean Stuart and writer Steven Leckart, began the film seven years ago and finished it thanks to a recent $92,000 round of Kickstarter funding. In directing his first movie, the actor borrowed a strategy from Solomon: "The Tom Sawyer theory of letting someone else paint the fence." At Tower, the founder never disciplined an employee for drinking on the job or ingesting the necessary substances to make it through intense all-night inventory sessions.
"You find the people that get their shit together, who get the job done, regardless of how much fun they have — and you leave 'em alone," Hanks says of the the organization's laissez-faire management style. "It's pretty dangerous, but it works for the era and for the music business. Russ kept finding himself in the right place, at the right time, with the right attitude."
Tower peaked in 1999, at the end of the CD boom, when the chain made $1 billion in a single year. Then Solomon planned a massive expansion into Japan (where he'd first opened stores in the Seventies), Latin America and Europe, just as online downloads were beginning to ravage the record industry and the company's loans began to come due. The organization filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and closed two years later; Walgreen's, Container Stores and Gibson Guitar Corp. shops took over various abandoned spaces. The last half of the film turns into a both a chronicle of extremely bad timing and brick-and-mortar tragedy about the changing tides of commerce.
Still, Hanks insists that All Things Must Pass is not out to bury Tower Records but to praise it, and that it's a tribute to the folks who kept it alive and made it a vital place for decades. "Within 0.3 seconds we knew that Solomon was a total character," he says. "But he insisted that he was not responsible for Tower's success, and that it was really the people that had started as clerks and worked their way up. That's when we started looking at it as more of a family story — about people coming together to do something truly unique and incredible."