It’s hard to say how “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” will affect audiences outside Sacramento. Because this intimate tribute to one of the city’s greatest sons, Tower founder Russ Solomon, and to the loyal executives who helped him build a music retail empire, feels decidedly local.
Sometimes acutely so, since it’s playing at the Tower Theatre, where it first showed in April as part of a film festival and now begins a theatrical run. The Tower sits in the same complex where a teenage Solomon, in the 1940s, sold 78s out of his father’s drugstore.
“All Things,” an accomplished directing debut by actor and Sacramento native Colin Hanks, unspools as an oral history composed of new interviews and archival footage and photos accompanied by voiceover. The now 90-year-old Solomon is lead talker, his voice resonant, his manner folksy. Former Tower executives who started as clerks – the long hairs, college dropouts and daylighting musicians – flesh out the film with lively anecdotes.
As it tracks Tower Records from its start, through decades of success and a comparatively swift decline into bankruptcy and then, in 2006, the company’s liquidation, “All Things” also offers a brief history of the modern record business.
Solomon, who eventually took over the Tower Record Mart annex of his dad’s drugstore, picked the right moment to open his first separate store, in 1961 on Watt Avenue. The ’60s marked the rise of the album, and its attendant higher price and greater profitability, over the single. Solomon rode the wave of “event” releases by the Beach Boys and Beatles, expanding his business to a new store at 16th and Broadway, in 1965, and a giant, enormously popular San Francisco store in 1968.
Solomon recounts with a twinkle that the San Francisco store came about after a drunken night in the city with a manicurist he’d picked up in Sacramento. The next morning, as he nursed his hangover at a greasy spoon, he spotted an empty building, across the street at Columbus and Bay, that looked ripe for record sales. He called the owner on a pay phone and made the deal.
It’s easy to see why ex-Tower employees still speak so fondly of Russ Solomon.
“All Things” plays more like an appreciation of Solomon as visionary and fun-loving guy than as the tough businessman he must have been, at times, as he built Tower from drugstore annex to international chain. Yet the film never lapses into hagiography, partly because Solomon is too authentic a presence.
He acknowledges faultier business decisions – like borrowing too much money to open (unsuccessful) foreign stores – while downplaying his many brilliant ones. His management strategy, of cultivating talent within stores, promoting clerks to buyer and manager positions, suggests a patient, generous nature.
Solomon’s lack of egotism ingratiates him so fully to viewers that it’s easy to see why ex-Tower employees interviewed for the film – most of whom worked for Solomon for decades – still speak so fondly of him. And it likely took every bit of Solomon’s considerable charm to build an empire reliant on the cooperation of that most unruly, nonconformist of creatures: the record-store clerk.
Solomon, former Tower executives say, was the guy who would say yes to an interesting idea before Tower’s money man, the late Bud Martin (to whom the film pays warm tribute), would cite the scheme’s potential pitfalls.
Tower operated stores in 6 foreign countries
Solomon usually pushed through with his ideas anyway, like expanding to Japan, where Tower did exceptional business. Solomon’s man in Japan was Mark Viducich, whose bushy mustache deserves its own billing in “All Things.” Viducich rose from shipping and receiving clerk to corporate management.
Viducich recalls spending three hours of one Tower Broadway shift drinking at El Chico down the street. Though Solomon says he forbade drinking and drugs in stores, no one man could keep Tower workers of the 1960s and ’70s from daily celebrations. Heidi Cotler, former Tower Books VP, says in the film that she learned to swear, drink and take drugs while working as a clerk in the 1960s.
But they always showed up for work and got their jobs done, the former employees say, no matter their compromised states.
“All Things ” contains interviews with Bruce Springsteen and Elton John about their love for the Tower on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles – a haven for musicians as well as music fans. But interviews with Tower executives like Viducich and Cotler, whose irreverence seems undiminished by age or climbs up the corporate ladder, hold greater impact, and make the film’s “rise” section the more revealing and poignant one.
Tower’s closure is nearly decade-old news, and anyone who followed the story knows how it went – debt, competition from big-box stores and the death knell of consumers preferring downloads to physical CDs.
The film’s inclusion of a photo of a young (yet identically mustached) Viducich in Japan, by contrast, leads to a new and greater understanding of what Sacramento lost when it lost Tower. The photo suggests unlimited potential, as does former executive Steve Nikkel’s account of sitting in an ex-pat bar in Asia during his Tower years and thinking, with some wonder, “and I’m from Sacramento.”
Closures of brick-and-mortar record and video stores and the companies that own them deny old-school entertainment fans the satisfaction of browsing racks. They also eliminate opportunities for people with artistic temperaments to hold jobs, and sometimes advance in those jobs, while maintaining their scruffy individuality.
Maybe such people become video-game designers now. But you don’t get to interact with them in stores. I miss surly Tower Records clerks in faded Misfits T-shirts. Even when they were judging my Cranberries CD.
All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Director: Colin Hanks
Not rated (contains profanity)