Enthusiastically discovering and pursuing a thriving business venture you’re intensely passionate about isn’t a luxury everyone has the privilege to explore in their lives. But for those who have that powerful advantage, they naturally exude a powerful devotion to spread that eagerness to everyone who works, and interacts, with them. Such is the case with Russ Solomon, the founder of the renowned 20th century music store, Tower Records, who created such an engaging environment for his employees and customers, that people around the world were keen on taking part of the company’s movement and history. Actor Colin Hanks intriguingly captured the world’s attraction to Tower Records in his feature documentary directorial debut, ‘All Things Must Pass.’ The filmmaker collaborated with his friend, producer Sean Stuart, to exhilaratingly showcase the company’s impact on the music industry in the film, which had its World Premiere during the 24 Beats Per Second section at this year’s SXSW.
‘All Things Must Pass’ follows the exploration the rise and fall of Tower Records, the once thriving retail company that operated 200 stores in 30 countries. Solomon started the company when he began selling records in the back of his father’s Sacramento drugstore in 1960. As his business began to grow, the entrepreneur opened the first stand-alone Tower Records store in California’s capital city, before he further expanded to San Francisco, the famed Los Angeles location on the Sunset Strip, and then across America and the world.
The company’s stores became known for selling almost every recording imaginable, which helped draw in diverse music fans and musicians alike. Tower Records eventually became the heart and soul, and a powerful force, in the music industry. Solomon, as well as several employees who worked with him, and such musicians as Elton John, Bruce Springstein and Dave Grohl, provide commentary on their experiences at Tower Records, and how important the company became in the music industry.
Despite its popularity from its initial opening and throughout the next four decades, Tower Records eventually began to fall. Between the rise of such streaming services as Napster in the late 1990s, the high price the company charged customers for CDs and the dissipation of CD singles, Tower Records started losing its customers to larger retailers, including Best Buy and Walmart, which were lowering prices for albums, as a way to attract consumer traffic. While Tower Records made $1 billion in 1999, the company ended up filing for bankruptcy in 2006, after its steadily increasing debt led to drastic management changes and layoffs, which ultimately failed to help the company.
Hanks and Stuart generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at the Intercontinental Hotel in Austin, Texas, during SXSW 2015. Among other things, the director and producer discussed how after Tower Records filed for bankruptcy and began closing its stores in 2007, they decided that exploring the rise of the initially small Sacramento-based business into a thriving, worldwide company that eventually disappeared in an epic collapse provided the perfect basis for a feature documentary; how making a documentary was a completely different, but equally insightful, process for Hanks, as he learned how to make people feel comfortable and relaxed on camera; and how such bands as The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, who rarely authorize their music to be featured in independent documentaries, instantly changed their minds about licensing their songs to ‘All Things Must Pass’ when they found out what the movie’s topic matter was, and realized the kind of story Hanks and Stuart were trying to tell.
ShockYa (SY): ‘All Things Must Pass’ is a feature documentary film that examines Tower Records’ trajectory, demise and legacy forged by its founder, Russ Solomon. Why were you both interested in telling the story about the legendary retail music chain, and how did you both become involved in the project?
Sean Stuart (SS): The process began during what feels like a lifetime ago. (laughs) I was visiting Colin in New York in 2007, and he and I were out to dinner with our wives. He turned to me and said, “A good friend of mine was in town, and she and I began talking about Tower Records, and how sad it is that the last stores are closed. Then at the end of the conversation, she mentioned that she couldn’t believe that it all started on the back shelf of a drug store.” Colin asked if I knew that, and I said, “I had no idea.”
We were then immediately hooked by the idea that this company that started in that small of a context was then able to expand out to 200 stores worldwide. It then disappeared in a pretty epic collapse. We knew there was something there to explore. So within six months, we were sitting down with Russ Solomon. We spoke to him for about six hours, but 20 minutes in, we knew there was a documentary there that was going to be special, and would tell a story that people would want to know.
Colin Hanks (CH): Directing the documentary was an interesting transition for me, because it involved a component of directing I had never witnessed before. Normally when I work with directors, I understand coverage and how actors should be seen, as well as the mood, lighting and those sorts of things.
But making a documentary is a totally different process. It involves the question of how you interview someone, and make them feel comfortable and relaxed on camera. I’ve been in interview scenarios before, like now, when I’m the one answering questions, but I’ve never been the person asking the questions. So that was a pretty big adjustment for me.
Other than that, I felt comfortable with things like composition and setting up shots. I also felt comfortable during the editing process with our brilliant editor, Darrin (Roberts). We were able to construct the story that I wanted to tell. Overall, it was a different process, but I also didn’t know any better, so I just jumped in. I’ve loved the process, and this has been an incredible journey.
SY: ‘All Things Must Pass’ marks your feature length directorial debut. Why did you decide to venture into helming, after acting for the past decade-and-a-half?
CH: Well, I have professionally worked as an actor for about 15 years. You get to a stage where you have certain ideas and stories you want to tell. I’m very interested in the stories that are so unbelievable, you can’t believe they really happened to real people. I’m a big non-fiction guy, and I’m also a documentary film fan.
So for me with this film, here was this engaging story, but no one else was making the documentary. So I thought that I would try it. It really was a creative outlet for me, because there’s a lot of down time being an actor. Once I got Sean involved, and was able to work with all of his expertise, we were able to go out and shoot things. We were then able to take things to different levels, and were able to grow and learn. Now making films like this one is one of the things we do as a company.
SS: It was exciting to watch Colin in his directorial debut. Often in these situations, a project can have too many people working on it, and they can start having trouble working together. But in a leadership standpoint, his ability to pick the people he wanted to work on his team made the film an incredibly collaborative process. In my opinion, we were able to resonate some of the things in the movie with the collaborative functions of Russ.
Colin was incredible in allowing our editor, Darrin, do what he was best at. It was the same thing with our DP (Director of Photography), as well as our writer, Steven Leckart, and everyone else who was involved. It was a wonderful experience.
SY: What was the process of interviewing Russ, especially since you also featured numerous aspects of his life and the way he ran Tower Records? How did you decide which parts of the interview you wanted to feature in the final version of the film?
CH: Well, in 0.3 seconds of meeting him, we realized what an amazing character he was. (laughs) He was such a fun guy to talk to during the interview. Once he said there were other people who we really needed to talk to, in order to tell the full Tower story, we said, “Okay, great-the film’s not going to just be about him; it’s going to be about a group of people.” That greatly informed what we were going to do.
There are so many things you can talk about with Tower. Sean likes to joke that we could have made a mini-series about this story.
SS: Yes, definitely.
CH: We had so much material, because we focused on a lot of different people. But the simple fact is that we had a difficult challenge of having to take 40 years of a company, and try to narrow that down to roughly 90 minutes. There’s no doubt that that process was a challenge, because there are a lot of great anecdotes, and most of them unfortunately didn’t make it into the film.
But I knew we had some great questions. We did a bunch of pre-interviews with a handful of our subjects, so we had an idea of where to go, and how they fit into things. We’d ask Russ things, and he’d fill us in. He’d say things like, “Mark Viducich (Tower Records’ Shipping and Receiving Clerk) would do this.”
So we were able to chart a course a little bit, but we were never set in stone about what we wanted to include until the final edit. We were like jazz musicians; we could go anywhere we wanted to go, and we’d still have a structure we could always go back to, if we needed. (laughs)
SY: Speaking of Mark, the documentary features interviews with several people who worked for Tower Records during the majority of the time the company was operational, as well as musicians who were passionate about the store, including Elton John, Bruce Springstein and Dave Grohl. What was the process of securing the interviews, and which aspects of each discussion to include in the final cut of the film?
SS: It wasn’t too much of a struggle. We knew a lot of the artists and executives who had a carnal knowledge of this company, as they lived it and knew about its inner workings, from a music industry standpoint. When we approached them, they were willing participants, from Elton John to Dave Grohl, Bruce Springstein and David Geffen. They all loved this company and what it did for, and brought to, the music industry, as well as who Russ was, and what he did for the industry in a lot of cases. So when we reached out to a lot of them, they were very open.
We saw the same thing when we went through the music licensing aspect of the film. We have songs from The Rolling Stones, the Steve Miller Band, George Harrison and The Beach Boys. These are huge acts that are often hard to lock down for a small, independent documentary. But when they figured out what the topic matter was, and saw the kind of story we were trying to tell, a lot of people jumped on board, and were excited to be a part of it.
CH: That goes for the younger acts, too. People at their labels, or their publishers, remembered Tower Records, so they would say, “We’d love to get our acts involved in the film.”
SS: I’m sure as musicians, they’re also fans of music history, whether they lived at Tower Records and really knew what it was, or they just wanted to support the subject and the film.
SY: Also speaking of the songs you featured, what was the process of figuring out what acts you wanted to feature, and then securing the rights to their music?
CH: It was incredibly easy at first, and then it became more difficult. While the overall process was a challenge, we used a bunch of music in our editing process that we ended up falling in love with, and felt that those songs really became a part of the film. I wanted all the music in the film to feel as though it was taken from a different aisle in a Tower Records store. So you’ve got your rock, you’ve got your jazz and a little classical, and you’ve got traditional and your soundtracks, so we featured almost everything under the sun.
Normally you have your licensing people approach publishers, and say, “Here’s the request for this movie, and here’s what we can pay.” A lot of times you’ll get, “No, that’s not enough,” but when they saw the movie’s about Tower Records, they said “Okay, sure.”
I ended up reaching out to people, and made phone calls to say, “Here’s why we’re asking for this song. I know you wouldn’t normally entertain (licensing to) a small, independent film that couldn’t pay you what you deserve. But let me tell you why we’re doing this film, and why this song’s important and fits into our movie.” Once we were able to convey that, most people said, “Okay, I see what you’re doing here.” That shows how the music is such an important character in the film.
SS: Our editor, Darrin, did a great job collaborating with Colin, to find some of the tracks that were so important to each of the eras the company was open, as well as to Tower overall. So that process really helped bring the story to life.
SY: ‘All Things Must Pass’ had its World Premiere here at SXSW, during the 24 Beats Per Second section (on March 17). What does it mean to you that the film is debuting during the festival?
CH: Well, from day one, I said we should premiere the film at SXSW; it’s the place for music and film to come together. Austin’s a great city, and it’s a music city. There was a Tower here, so it felt like the spiritual place to have the film’s premiere.
Written by: Karen Benardello