A Long, Strange Trip

With All Things Must Pass, his documentary chronicling the epic rise and fall of Tower Records, actor-director Colin Hanks brings the story of his hometown’s most famous, freewheeling brand to life on the big screen.

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Tower Records founder Russ Solomon (center) at his Sacramento home with filmmakers Colin Hanks (right) and Sean Stuart on Oct. 24, 2014 - the last day of production on 'All Things Must Pass.' (Portrait by Marc Thomas Kallweit)

 

IIt was the best of times, it was the loudest of times.

It was an eruption of youth, a climb into middle age, a collapse and slump into repose. It was short stories crafted from long memories. It was haze and booze and sideshows, a front-row seat beneath popular culture’s sprawling, messy big top. It was upheaval and downsizing, a spectacular collision of women and men and words and music. It was six decades of flying before an eternity on the ground. It was gleaming yellow and red, a legend speckled with rust. It was a name, repeated and revered and whispered and hushed.

And then it came to this—the silence filling Russ Solomon’s house.

Solomon, 89, sits in his library, wordless and motionless between tales in a burnt orange chair. Thousands of books surround him from floor to ceiling, the space augmented by framed Bob Dylan lyrics, tiers of CD boxed sets, sculptures, sketches, photographs, and other artwork and ephemera. A microphone perches in a boom stand extended over his head, registering only the faint rustling of Colin Hanks reviewing papers in a chair to Solomon’s left. But Hanks, the actor-filmmaker who attended high school less than a mile from this low-slung Sierra Oaks edifice, directs a sound engineer seated on the floor behind him to stop recording. Now the microphone idles, too, while Hanks keeps his head down.

On a couch across from Solomon, Hanks’ producing partner (and fellow Sacramentan) Sean Stuart scoots toward the edge of his seat. He leans his elbows on his knees.

“That’s it?” Stuart asks.

The quiet resumes. Hanks looks up.

“Yeah, that’s it,” he says.

“Really?” Solomon asks.

“I know that’s really weird,” Hanks says.

“What’s weird is you’re weird,” Solomon jokes.

Stuart leads the way in a loud, knowing chuckle between the three of them, returning the house to a noise more in line with the empire of decibels for which Solomon is best known: Tower Records, the Sacramento-born global entertainment juggernaut that began when a teenaged Solomon commenced selling vinyl records out of his father’s drugstore on Broadway in 1941. Its ascendancy in the ’60s and ’70s both fueled and paralleled that of the music industry during the same time, when phenomena like the British Invasion and arena rock and disco burrowed into the consciousness (and wallets) of baby boomers along the West Coast. By the early ’80s, the retailer had expanded to points both east (downtown Manhattan) and Far East (the eight-story Tokyo centerpiece of a spun-off Tower chain that thrives to this day throughout Japan). By 1999, with more than 170 record and bookstores embedded in 20 countries, Tower was earning revenues of more than $1 billion annually.

By 2004, Tower had declared bankruptcy.

This fact serves as the startling epigram to All Things Must Pass, Hanks’ new documentary about Tower’s inexorable rise to worldwide prominence, swift plunge into oblivion and, finally, its enduring place in cultural mythology. Part joyride through a half-century of influence and part bittersweet record-shop postmortem, the film juxtaposes recollections from Solomon and his closest lieutenants with testimonials from high-profile customers like Sir Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, label chief David Geffen and Foo Fighters leader (and ex-Tower staffer) Dave Grohl. More than seven years after their initial interview with Solomon—and after weathering a succession of financing perils of their own—Hanks and Stuart debuted All Things Must Pass in March at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. 

Which is where the weirdness comes in, at least for Solomon. “When Colin and Sean came to see me about this in the first place, I said they were totally nuts,” he recalls. “[I asked them], ‘Who in the hell would care about something like that?’ But they persisted. So good for them. Let’s see what happens now.”

RELATED: See photos from the Sacramento premiere of All Things Must Pass

For Hanks and Stuart, the childhood friends who inaugurated their Los Angeles-based production firm Company Name with All Things Must Pass, “persisted” is one way of putting it. On the first day of shooting in 2008—at Tower Records’ former location on Watt Avenue—the camera overheated. A hit crowdfunding campaign in 2011 later triggered a fusillade of doubts from some backers who accused the beleaguered filmmakers of taking their money and running. Hanks, 37, co-starred in full seasons of three TV series—The Good Guys, Dexter and Fargo—while he and Stuart, 36, struggled to salvage their documentary labor of love. Another Russ Solomon-launched music venture—R5 Records, in the former site of Tower Records on 16th Street and Broadway—came and went before All Things Must Pass had cobbled together more than a few days’ worth of production footage. Hanks and his wife, Samantha, had two children, and Stuart and his wife, Margot, had three in the time it took the filmmakers to conceive and deliver one 100-minute movie.

When Hanks (center) and Stuart came to Solomon with the idea for 'All Things Must Pass,' “I said they were totally nuts,” the Tower Records founder recalls. (Photo by Marc Thomas Kallweit)

So sitting with Solomon in his library last October, recording the last of the Tower mogul’s comments for All Things Must Pass, the significance of the moment—of the climactic silence just minutes away—is hardly lost on Hanks and Stuart. The end is near. First, though, some clarifications. Stuart wants to know when Solomon remembers hearing for the first time about Napster, the pioneering file-sharing service that all but nuked the music industry and record stores at the turn of the millennium. Meanwhile, Hanks has questions about Tower’s aggressive growth through the 1970s. He studies his list of Tower stores that opened in the West through that decade, beginning with the iconic Sunset Strip location in 1970, then rippling out to Seattle, San Diego and Phoenix and more than a dozen other cities before debuting in Japan in 1979. Even Solomon can’t believe that the company expanded that quickly; he reviews Hanks’ documentation for proof.

Just before wrapping production, Stuart asks Solomon for a specific line of voiceover to place over the documentary’s planned graphic of the western United States. “It helps people understand what happened between L.A. and [Tokyo], and what you guys were doing,” Stuart says. “Because it was a major expansion, and this is where you guys really—”

Solomon interrupts Stuart, cool and unbending and sharp as a hatchet blade. “If you really think I knew what the fuck I was doing,” he says, “you’re out of your mind.”

******

To the contrary, viewers of All Things Must Pass will likely come away with the certitude that Russ Solomon is nothing less than a genius. An accidental genius, perhaps—a businessman immune to the high temperatures of risk until it immolated him, or a devout believer in what he characterizes in the film as the “Tom Sawyer theory of management,” which gathered and entrusted others to “paint the fence.” Until the fence leaned and slumped and splintered apart, anyway. But still a genius nonetheless.

“The biggest thing I wanted to be able to do is make sure [the filmmakers] understood it wasn’t just me,” Solomon says. “That was important. The whole thing—the whole development of the company—was a project that was accomplished by a lot of people. Literally hundreds, when you think about it. If it wasn’t for all the things they did along the way, it would never have reached the level or scope of where it actually ended up. I kept saying over and over: It wasn’t me who did these things. I mean, I got to be the boss and all, but it was the ideas of so many people that we were able to take advantage of—which were good ideas. And as these ideas began to propagate throughout the company, that allowed the company to grow.”