All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records


Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Russ Solomon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Mark Viducich, David Geffen, Michael Solomon, Steve Knepper, Heidi Cotler, Dave Grohl, Mike Farrace, Rudy Danzinger, Paul Brown, Steve Knopper, Steve Nikkel, Stan Goman, Ken Sockolov, Chris Hopson, Bob Delanoy. Directed by Colin Hanks

To people of a certain age, a visit to a record store was akin to a spa day; we would spend literally hours browsing the bins of records, cassettes and later compact discs. We’d pour through the bargain and used bins, sweaty palmed and wide-eyed until our breath would catch in our throats as the one record, that one record that made the time and effort worth it appeared out of the stacks. There were no finer moments in my life.

Those days are gone; most of us, myself included, get our music digitally downloaded through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon or some other service, or stream our music through Pandora, RDIO or Band Camp. Music is so easily accessible that it has lost much of its magic to many of us. Why bother spending that kind of time haunting a record store when you can just Google the name of your treasure and it will be located in seconds? Who among us of a certain age can remember the thrill of first entering a Tower Records, a record store that dwarfed anything we’d known before and had just about anything and everything that was available – and if they didn’t have it by God they could get it for you in a week, tops.

In 1999, as a title card at the very beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass which chronicles the story of what is perhaps the most iconic record chain in history, Tower Records had over a billion dollars in sales. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy. How did that happen?

Well, the Internet happened. Music suddenly was being file shared and downloaded. Who needed to go inside an old-fashioned brick and mortar emporium? Who had the time? Besides, you could find anything on Napster for free. Why pay twenty bucks for a CD when you could get the very same quality for free? You can’t compete with free, says one talking head ruefully during the course of the film.

Competition happened. Big box stores like Wal*Mart and Target began stocking CDs in comparable qualities and sold them at cost. Tower couldn’t compete with that either. But this wasn’t all Tower’s doing; the music business itself made some incompetent decisions, focusing on music piracy. They may have won the battle against Napster but they lost the war; the major labels these days are shadows of their former selves and making a living as a musician is way harder than it used to be – and it was never easy.

&Tower grew because it was a family store, a neighborhood store. It began as a few bins in a drug store located in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento. When the proprietor’s son, Russ Solomon, decided to get in the record retail business, his father sold the bins to him and soon Russ had a couple of stores in Sacramento. Then one in San Francisco. Then another in Los Angeles.

Russ believed in expansion but he also believed in having more stock than anyone else. He believed in putting people as clerks who were people you’d want to hang out with and talk music with for a couple of hours. I remember going into the Tower Records in Mountain View, California and when the clerks found out I was the rock critic for the San Jose Metro ended up spending nearly three hours just chatting with nearly all of them in between them ringing up customers. They grilled me on various groups and styles; about some I would plead ignorance but others I knew well. When I left the store, the manager told me that I was “Tower Records clerk material.” I don’t ever recall being as thrilled about a compliment in all my life.

That family feeling carried through to the executives of the company, nearly all of whom started out working at the cash register. As we listen to their interviews, particularly Mark Viducich (he of the walrus-like moustache in the photo above) and Heidi Cotler, we get the sense that these are people who are used to speaking what’s on their mind and would be a hoot to hang out with for a few beers after work. These guys knew their market because they were their market.

Solomon’s aggressive expansion phase made Tower a global presence, particularly in Japan which was rabid about American culture (the Japanese expansion was Viducich’s call). Music being such a personal thing, they understood that it had to be treated almost as therapeutic and so it was. If music was the catalyst for change in the latter half of the 20th century, Tower Records was the company that provided the chemicals for the reaction.

Times did change and despite their best efforts Tower Records is no more. Now Colin Hanks, the actor and son of Tom, has fashioned a documentary that is a very good idea – it is going to inspire a ton of nostalgia for a lot of people ranging from the baby boomers to Gen X; in other words, the people that Millennials roll their eyes at these days. That can’t be a bad thing for the box office.

If I have one complaint with the film it’s just that the format is pretty tried and true – lots of talking heads with archival film footage interspersed with it. The soundtrack is pretty good but not as great as that which accompanied The Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals. That’s a bit of a problem, but one that isn’t a deal killer at least.

There are some record collectors left but most of us have reverted to digital storage. Ironically the CDs which prompted the golden era for Tower in terms of profits were also the vehicle for the doom of big record chains including Tower. Once music was digital, the obsolescence of brick and mortar record stores was assured.

Still, one can look back fondly on hours spent at Tower, Amoeba and Park City CDs and the money spent and not one dime of it do I regret. Music is as essential to life as breathing (the Japanese Tower continues to use the old Tower slogan “No music, no life”) and I can’t imagine life without it. We all have our own soundtracks and Tower was the place where many of us acquired ours.

REASONS TO GO: Classic nostalgia for aging music geeks. Engaging interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian format.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Tower Records no longer exists in the United States, they still thrive in Japan under separate ownership.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Homemakers

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The Italian Job (2003)


The Italian Job

That Mini-Cooper could probably fit inside that helicopter with room to spare.

(2003) Action (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Mos Def, Seth Green, Donald Sutherland, Boris Lee Krutonog, Julie Costello, Gawtti, Franky G, Aaron Speiser, Olek Krupa, Thomas Alexander. Directed by F. Gary Gray

 

It started out as a perfect heist. The brazen pilfering of Venetian gold, misdirection to lead pursuit away, and the recovery of the ill-gotten gains. Better still, this wasn’t the work of mastermind John Bridger (Sutherland), who is looking to get out of the game for good, but of his protégé, Charlie Croker (Wahlberg), who is taking over the crew.

Unexpectedly, they are betrayed by Steve (Norton) one of their own, who wants all the gold for himself. Knowing that Bridger has an aversion to carrying guns, Steve brings a few of his own and uses them. Most of the crew gets away, but John Bridger does not.

Fast forward a few years. The crew has managed to track down the elusive Steve back to Los Angeles, and are just itching for a little payback – not to mention the gold they stole. Left Ear (Mos Def), computer expert Napster (Green) and driver Handsome Rob (Statham) have reunited with Charlie, but they need an expert safecracker to take John’s old role. It so happens that John’s daughter Stella (Theron) has become an excellent safecracker, after a fashion; she is a security consultant who tests the vulnerability of safes for large corporations. She’s not really interested in ill-gotten gains, but it turns out she is very interested in getting revenge on the man who killed her father.

As with most caper movies, there are twists, turns and suspense a-plenty. Some wonderful car chases, some terrific action sequences and a nice bit of poetic justice near the end, although I couldn’t really call it an unexpected twist. Director F. Gary Gray is a bit too heavy-handed for that. He also has too many extraneous characters in the movie. I’m not sure if he’s trying to do some misdirection of his own, but it doesn’t work.

We could have done without the Russian mobsters and the informant, Skinny Pete (Gawtti). Frankly, some of the gang could have used a little more screen time. Gray, however, cast this movie to near-perfection. Green is fast becoming the Steve Buscemi for a new generation; he is nervous, quirky and always entertaining when he is riffing on his own. Statham is perfectly cast as Handsome Rob, the driver. He is absolutely riveting when he is on screen, and while he hasn’t gotten the huge screen star career I thought he was going to when I first saw this, he has managed to carve out a pretty satisfying niche in the action genre and has made some fairly nice films, although there is a lot of b-movie drekk in there as well. Wahlberg is settling into an action-hero niche nicely, although I’ve found him to be one-dimensional at times here but he nicely fills the role of the resourceful mastermind for the purposes of this film.

It is Theron who really caught my notice. Up until this point I’d never been very fond of her – she’sd always seemed kind of prissy in most of the movies I’ve seen her in up until this film, but she really held her own, and quite frankly, she looks better than she ever has at least until Snow White and the Huntsman (I know, I know, I’m a shallow, shallow man). Edward Norton gets to be a smarmy bad guy, a role in which he excels and pretty much perfects here.

The psychology of the movie is a little predictable; father-figure gets gunned down in front of the impressionable eyes of the hero, who seeks justice and gets it without getting his hands dirty. You know that the trigger-happy Norton is going to get his at the end of the movie, but you can’t have the hero getting blood on his hands; Hollywood might be going retro, but the anti-hero is a bit too retro for the tastes of most studios. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to line up Wahlberg as a criminal, but then he’s not a murderer, so he’s not too bad a guy. Of course, I could just be getting too grumpy in my old age.

Some movies should never be remade. Others can benefit from an updating. The 1969 Michael Caine caper movie on which this one is based is not what you would call a classic, but it is a movie of its time. That said, The Italian Job does what another remake, 2001`s Oceans 11 set out to do; take a movie of its time and make it timeless. Oceans 11 succeeded in its attempt, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Italian Job doesn’t quite become timeless, but it is an entertaining movie, and as the years have passed it has remained that way. I guess it is timeless after all.

WHY RENT THIS: Great action sequences. Theron emerges as a major star. Fun summer entertainment. Great ensemble.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Wahlberg lacks the charisma I would have liked to have seen here. A little bit predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence and a lot of action.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Lyle’s girlfriend at the end of the film is played by Kelly Brook, who was Jason Statham’s actual girlfriend at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Mini-Coopers (which are used extensively in the chase sequence) and on the actors two weeks in drivers school (they did a lot of their own driving stunts).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $176.1M on a $60M production budget; the film was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oceans 11

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Beautiful Life

The Social Network


The Social Network

Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg, the new Odd Couple.

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Joe Mazzello, Patrick Mapel, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella, Armie Hammer, Rashida Jones, David Selby, Brenda Song, Malese Jow, Dakota Johnson, Wallace Langham, Caitlin Gerard. Directed by David Fincher

With Facebook having just reached 500 Million subscribers, that adds up to almost one in every fourteen people on the planet that have a Facebook account. It has become the pre-eminent social network, replacing MySpace and America Online before it, and in a sense, replacing real life in exchange for a digital replica. It’s insanely addictive and has it’s uses, but it has the insidious side to it, eating our time and energy.

Few of us know that much about how Facebook came to be. Many of its users don’t even know the name Mark Zuckerberg unless they trouble themselves to read the masthead. This new movie, which is often referred to as “The Facebook Movie,” isn’t about giving a fact-based account of the founding of Facebook, but then again, generally those types of accounts make for poor movies.

Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), a sophomore at Harvard in 2003, is having a beer with Erica Albright (Mara), his erstwhile girlfriend, and engaging in some conversation and by conversation I mean he is engaging in a kind of strategic battle of words with her, filled with condescending remarks and sometimes biting thinly-veiled insults. She has grown weary of the battle and breaks up with him.

Angry and humiliated, Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm room and as 21st century kids tend to do, starts blogging. Caught up in the raw emotion of the moment, he does a pretty thorough character assassination of her, even going so far as to insinuate that her breasts are “barely there.” A more experienced man might have told him never to insult a woman’s breasts.

Half-drunk and fueled by his own rage, he decides to humiliate every woman at Harvard and creates over the course of the night a webpage that allows women to be rated like so much meat. He calls it Facemash and it becomes so popular it crashes the servers at Harvard. This gets Mark hauled before the board of administration for some disciplinary action.

It also gets him noticed. Twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Hammer) and their programming friend Divya Narendra (Minghella) want to create a kind of Harvard-exclusive site that allows people with Harvard e-mail addresses to link up online and enlists Zuckerberg to do it. He agrees, but early on determines that their idea is more compelling than their vision and determines to create his own site which he calls The Facebook. His roommates Dustin Moskowitz (Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Mapel) are enlisted to do the programming and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Garfield) fronts them the seed money.

Of course, when his new creation goes online on February 4, 2004, the twins are furious, thinking they’ve been ripped off. Tyler and Narendra are all gung-ho to sue Zuckerberg but Cameron, wishing to maintain the decorum of a Harvard gentleman, wants to find some other way of redress. It is only when they discover that the once Harvard-exclusive site has gone global that Cameron changes his mind and calls out the family lawyer.

As the site begins to grow by leaps and bounds, Zuckerberg decides to summer in Palo Alto, hoping to get some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs interested in his start-up. Eduardo stays behind in New York, trying to sell advertising for the new website which makes Zuckerberg a bit uncomfortable. He begins to fall under the sway of Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake) who at least has the vision to see Facebook as a world-changing application, and determines to capitalize on it, interesting venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel (Langham) to invest big bucks in Facebook. Soon Zuckerberg finds himself as one of the youngest billionaires in the world, but the cost is his friendship with Saverin, as at the urging of Parker he devalues Saverin’s shares from nearly 30% to less than 1%. Saverin, incensed, decides to sue. The simultaneous lawsuits act as a framing device for the film.

The buzz for this movie has been plenty high and after its debut at the New York film Festival last month, grew to a dull roar. It’s being touted as the year’s first serious Oscar contender and it seems likely that some nominations are going to be coming its way, quite likely for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and maybe even to Eisenberg for Best Actor.

The real Zuckerberg is reportedly none too pleased with his portrayal here, and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin’s screenplay certainly isn’t very complimentary. It gives us a Zuckerberg who is arrogant, ruthless, cruel and socially awkward; he doesn’t seem to have a problem gutting his friends and certainly believes himself to be the smartest guy in any room. Is that the real Mark Zuckerberg? Chances are that elements of the character are accurate but I sincerely doubt that this is meant to be an exact capture of the essence of the Facebook founder. Rather, it’s meant more to be symbolic of digital hubris in an age of online egos gone out of control. Eisenberg becomes something of a cipher, his face often going blank when he is trying to hide what he’s feeling. He usually plays likable nerds but there’s not much likable about this guy and yet still we are drawn to him; as one of his lawyer’s (Jones) tells him near the end of the film, he’s not an asshole but he’s trying really hard to look like one.

Garfield, who was recently cast to be the next Spider-Man, does a great job as well, making the likable but ultimately out of his depth Saverin the emotional anchor for the story. Audiences will naturally root for him, and when he is eventually betrayed will feel his pain. Garfield hadn’t to this point caught my eye with any of his performances, but he certainly shows the ability to carry a franchise film like Spider-Man on his own.

Timberlake, whose acting career has blown hot and cold, delivers the best performance of his career to date as the unctuous Parker. Looking visually not unlike Quentin Tarantino, he is slick and snake-like, mesmerizing his victims with his charm and promises, then striking with lethal speed, delivering his venom in a swift, fatal blow.

Much of the movie is about courtrooms, programmers and start-up Silicon Valley businesses, as well as the rarefied air at Harvard, but despite some of the dry subjects manages to hold our interest throughout, and that’s mainly due to the interactions between the characters and Fincher’s deft hand at directing. The movie is both emotional and antiseptic, sometimes showing us heart and then slamming that door shut abruptly. It serves as a cautionary tale, not just for would-be billionaires but also to all of us. We reap what we sow and if we choose our own egos over actual human interaction, we too could wind up endlessly refreshing a computer screen, waiting for a friend request acceptance that never comes.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story and some intense performances. Eisenberg is particularly marvelous in a role that is quite frankly unlikable.

REASONS TO STAY: The portrayal of Harvard students is so self-aggrandizing at times it makes you wonder if our species has any future.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of drug usage, quite a bit of sexuality and no shortage of foul language. Older teens should be able to handle this, but more impressionable teens should be steered clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finch was unable to find suitable twin actors to portray the Winklevoss twins, so he cast Hammer and Josh Pence who have similar body types, then digitally inserted video of Hammer reading the lines over Pence’s face to create the illusion of identical twins.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen, so you can be forgiven if you wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)