A crucial piece of vintage footage of Elton John shopping at the Tower Records on Sunset Strip ensured that director Colin Hanks could fulfill his vision in All Things Must Pass, the story of Tower and its founder Russ Solomon.
John, list in hand, is captured intensely walking the aisles of Tower with a colleague to hold onto his pile of albums as he pulls them from the bins. With a single clip, the point -- that rock stars' favorite place to buy music was Tower -- was driven home.
"We only had so much money, so we had to be surgical with who we spoke to and why," Hanks said a day before the March 17 premiere of All Things Must Pass, a yellow and red Tower Records button beaming from his dark denim jacket. "With Elton, it was him going to the store. When we found the footage, we said 'OK, I know that he cares about Tower Records,' and can ask him if he'd be in the movie."
"Anecdotes are great, but they don't push narrative. Dave Grohl knocked off two things: he works in the store before he is famous and he also gave us a great bit about his haircut, so that works with our bit on the dress codes at the time."
Begun in 2008, Hanks struggled to find financing for the project, until a 2011 Kickstarter campaign raised $98,000, giving the filmmakers ample ammunition for showing how passionate the audience could be for a definitive film on the once-ubiquitous chain of record stores.
Hanks made that film by focusing on Solomon, the man who got his start in the record business in 1939, selling used 78s in his father's drug store in Sacramento. Those who joined the Tower team while it was a single store in Sacramento in the 1960s, helping it expand to San Francisco, Los Angeles and then the world, give the story its soul.
Despite the high-profile appearances of Grohl and John, this enchanting documentary mostly steers clear of using celebrities as talking heads. David Geffen and recently retired Universal Music Group executive Jim Urie do the talking for the record industry, identifying the importance of Tower, Solomon and his employees, many of the high-ranking ones having started in the '60s and lasted into the 21st century.
"When we met Russ," says Hanks, who shopped at the Sacramento stores as youth and Marina Del Rey and Santa Monica while in college, "it took less than a second to realize this guy is a great character and one of the most humble people I had ever met. He was adamant -- 'If you're going to do this it can't just be my story.' That is when the doc started to evolve."
"It's really about a family that comes together, a misfit group of people that goes off and does all these cool things. They spend 30 years of their lives with this company and then lose it. That's heartbreaking. It made the film and Tower even more speical."
Producer Sean Stuart points out it was "a global mom-and-pop," meaning each store was run individually and came to be viewed as a local venue. Add to that, from 1968 to 2000 it never lost money, and the gap between bringing in $1 billion in sales (in 1991) and bankruptcy was only six years.
"They profited from the times and they were also hurt by the times -- in different eras," Hanks says. "The CD era, that treated them very well. The early 2000s, not so much."
All Things Must Pass, which is looking for a distribution deal, screens again at SXSW March 19 at Alamo Slaughter and March 20 at the Stateside.