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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Elton John, seen here shopping at Tower’s Sunset Boulevard location in 1975, is featured prominently in 'All Things Must Pass.' (Photo courtesy of Sean Stuart)

Customers got in on the act, too. The documentary hints at how Tower anchored its global supremacy in the restlessness of young people on the north side of Sacramento, who Cotler mentions flocked to the Watt Avenue store in the early ’60s in desperate need of a countercultural outlet. Tower’s next two stores—San Francisco in 1968, Los Angeles in 1970—galvanized an even greater cross section of consumers. Among them were once and future superstars. In the film, Bruce Springsteen describes being “shocked” by the size of Tower Records upon his first time traveling west. Archival footage of Elton John from the ’70s shows the legendary performer purposefully roaming the aisles of the Sunset store with a list of records to buy, handing off three copies of each (one for each of his houses) to an accompanying limo driver. “I can honestly say this without any exaggeration: I spent more money at Tower Records than any other human being,” Sir Elton declaims. (Somewhere on the cutting-room floor, Stuart says, there’s another clip where John insists that shopping at Tower Records was better than any sex he ever had.)

Still, even with its all-star raconteurs and glossy, globe-trotting detours, All Things Must Pass is most affecting as a testament to the crazy will of Sacramentans—to not only create the world’s most influential record store here, but also to keep it headquartered here, establishing a home on the fringes, expanding impulsively (“Don’t lose too much money on that,” Solomon said when giving his green light to the founding editors of Tower’s beloved music magazine Pulse!), and thinking nothing of making music’s biggest power brokers come to it.

“If you come from a place like Sacramento, and you’re looking to do an expansion that goes all over the country and ultimately all over the world, you get a view [of the music business] from the outside in,” Solomon says. Staying put in this region gave Tower an advantage in seeing how diverse tastes, trends and demands were shaping up beyond music’s conventional industry hubs. “If you were in Los Angeles or New York or some place like that,” he adds, “your view really ended at the city limits.”

“Anyone from Sacramento would see [All Things Must Pass] and go, ‘Oh, I know exactly who these guys are,’ ” says Colin Hanks. “And not just because it’s Russ Solomon or whoever. We’re our own kind of breed, in a way.”

In contrasting glimpses of the surging modern-day city with the heyday of its best-known brand, Hanks and Stuart have delivered more than just the most Sacramento movie ever made. It’s the movie that Sacramentans perhaps won’t even know they wanted until they see it—a jamboree of flintiness, a repudiation of the provincial, a mission for more.

“Anyone from Sacramento would see it and go, ‘Oh, I know exactly who these guys are,’ ” Hanks says. “And not just because it’s Russ Solomon or whoever. They know who these types of people are. I do feel there is something about coming from Sacramento. You’re just…”

Hanks pauses, then continues in a voice scorched with both exhaustion and resolve. “We’re our own kind of breed, in a way.”

******

Making movies is hard. You need luck, wits, resilience and fortitude. Insanity, while not a prerequisite, certainly helps. Making a documentary is especially hard, if only because these elements must withstand the whims of real life. There’s no script, no beginning, no end. Just to complete production—to say nothing of editing or adding music—Hanks and Stuart still needed to acquire supplemental interviews with Solomon and his inner Tower circle, archival footage and other materials from a half-century of Tower history. “In documentary filmmaking,” Hanks says, “by its very nature, you’re not 100 percent sure what people are going to say, and you’re not 100 percent sure what you’re going to get. You’re constantly building a puzzle, and the sizes and shapes are all moving and changing. And the pieces are on fire. So it takes time.”

Mostly, though, you need money. After collecting their original footage in 2008, Hanks and Stuart embarked on a hunt for funds at the start of America’s worst recession in 75 years. Months of inertia became years of stasis. All Things Must Pass looked dead in the water.

Then one day in 2011, Hanks found the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Since launching in 2009, the site has collected almost  a quarter-billion dollars for more than 16,000 movie projects by matching “creators” to “backers” who help underwrite their budgets. In return for their contributions, backers are entitled to a tiered scale of “rewards”—perhaps a T-shirt for contributing $20, a DVD for a little bit more money, premiere tickets for even more. Creators estimate delivery dates for the rewards, which routinely get held up as productions drag on—hardly an uncommon reality in the movie business, but often an inconvenient and incompatible fact of life for backers who expect timely deliveries or progress reports, even from stalled projects. With its world-famous subject, a well-known actor at its helm, desirable rewards (like limited-edition vinyl albums signed by Hanks and/or Solomon), and built-in appeal to both movie and music press, All Things Must Pass was, in theory, an ideal candidate for Kickstarter.

Top: The Tower empire, which expanded to London in 1985, spanned more than 170 stores in 20 nations by 1999. Bottom: The Tower Records store in Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya district remains open as the flagship store of Tower’s thriving Japanese chain. (Photos courtesy of Sean Stuart)

In practice, it was a blockbuster. The filmmakers received nearly double the $50,000 backing they sought, pulling in $92,025 over 45 days in the spring and summer of 2011. Social media in particular exploded with interest, including a tweet of support from a certain Oscar-winning actor-director with his own Sacramento stories: “This will make a great docu, and I’m a fan of the filmmaker!” tweeted Tom Hanks, Sacramento State’s most famous alum. (Aside from a few editorial notes along the way, Colin Hanks says, his father has no creative or financial involvement with the documentary.)

Kickstarter success can be a double-edged sword, however. After three years of struggle, Hanks and Stuart appeared to have the momentum they sought to move forward with the movie. They also had nearly 1,700 backers scattered from Sacramento to Spain to Singapore and beyond—all nursing high expectations with varying levels of impatience. In October 2011, the duo spent four days in Sacramento logging and scanning materials from Solomon’s archives, which comprised roughly 200 boxes of photographs, expansion plans, budgets, vintage advertising and documents in addition to artwork, awards, furniture, clothing and other keepsakes that the Tower founder had donated to the Center for Sacramento History.

Around the same time, the project’s first status inquiry came in from a Kickstarter backer: “Are we looking at a 2012 release date?” This was relatively benign; by mid-2012, requests for updates turned to needling annoyance or worse.

“365 days since funding. Where do we stand?” asked one backer.

“This is taking longer than even I expected. UPDATES?? anyone? anyone?” wrote another.

“Hey, thieves,” wrote yet another. “What’s up?”

Hanks was used to being second-guessed as the son of a famous actor. And as a first-time director rebuffed by numerous financiers in his and Stuart’s search for funding, he had a thick enough skin to ignore skeptics on Kickstarter. “I’m more than happy to take those hits if I can make my movie,” he says today. But even after years on TV and movie sets, the time, expense and pressure of completing All Things Must Pass compounded in ways he hadn’t expected. “There was a long time when we just didn’t have any updates,” he continues, acknowledging the no-win situation of engaging with the project’s most vocal public critics. “When you’re getting these emails first thing in the morning saying, ‘Hey, thieves, where’s the movie?’ you want to explain to them, ‘Look, here’s the deal.’ But you just can’t do that.”

Exasperation set in as Hanks and Stuart worked to shape the project in increments, stretching Kickstarter dollars along the way and taking creative inspiration where they could. One day, while shooting the TV series The Good Guys in Dallas, Hanks was surprised to observe the crew filming parts of a stunt scene with small digital SLR cameras—the kinds of light, handheld devices an amateur photographer might port around on vacation. Upon realizing that these cameras were good enough for making a network television show, Hanks says he had an epiphany: “That’s how I’m going to be able to finish this documentary. That’s going to save costs tremendously.”

And it did. Hanks, Stuart and their crew (which included Nicola Marsh, one of the cinematographers who shot the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) filmed 16 more interviews over 2013, from follow-ups with Solomon to sit-downs with Springsteen and Grohl to freewheeling chats with Tower’s executive brain trust in Sacramento. “We knew we were never going to abandon the film after we went through that Kickstarter process,” Stuart says. “We were just taking the necessary time to make what we think is a great film that people are going to enjoy. Had we just spit something out for the money we got on Kickstarter, it would have been a disservice to the film. It would be a disservice to the topic matter. It would have been a disservice to Russ Solomon. It would have been a disservice to all the guys who are in the film and to their legacy.”

After Hanks completed filming the TV series Fargo in Calgary in spring 2014 (work that earned him Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for best supporting actor), he returned to Los Angeles to edit All Things Must Pass. The Kickstarter pestering had persisted from a handful of backers, but by the end of summer, the interviews had mostly come together to
make up the documentary’s elusive beginning, middle and end. One late night, driving east from his office in Santa Monica to his home in Los Feliz, Hanks reeled with bliss. He was crossing Los Angeles, but he might as well have been crossing the finish line.

“There was no traffic,” he says. “The windows were down. The music was loud. And I was incredibly happy.”

******

The last customer at Tower Records' location on 16th Street and Broadway enters the store on Dec. 20, 2006. (Photo by Jeremy Sykes)

The post-Tower era in America now spans a little more than eight years—slightly longer than Colin Hanks and Sean Stuart have been working on All Things Must Pass. Other coincidences link the making of the documentary to the making of Tower itself. Both enterprises battled through money shortfalls en route to their wider audiences. Both feature funky, tuneful tours through ages and genres, guided by Solomon and his merry band. Both include memorable and frequent appearances from Elton John, an inveterate patron who calls Tower’s dissolution “one of the greatest tragedies of my life.” (This, from a man who sang at Princess Diana’s funeral.) Most poignantly, both Tower and All Things Must Pass stem from the borderline quixotic visions of the three Sacramentans sitting in the house that Tower Records built, wondering what could possibly come next.

First: a big premiere. One of the higher-level Kickstarter rewards pledges two tickets to the documentary’s world premiere in Sacramento. The film’s hometown debut will have to wait a bit longer until the Sacramento International Film Festival, which runs April 25-May 3—a little more than a month after All Things Must Pass has its coming-out party on the world stage at South by Southwest in Austin.

“Where would you like to see it [shown]?” Solomon asks the filmmakers. “HBO?”

“It just depends on who wants to see it,” Stuart says—maybe a cable network, maybe a combination of online streaming and a limited theatrical release. At a private test screening the night before, friends and insiders gave them glowing notes on a rough cut. (“Thin it out structurally, and you’ll have a perfect film,” one viewer told Hanks.) The filmmakers were blown away by how much the movie “popped” on the big screen. Either way, Stuart says, whether in living rooms or theaters, a distribution deal comes down to “who’s interested, who comes to us, and who we can get in front of.” [UPDATE: All Things Must Pass was acquired by Gravitas Ventures in April for theatrical distribution this fall.)

“Our whole goal at this point,” Hanks says, “is to make the best cut of the movie that we possibly can.” From there, he adds, “Whatever the best idea is, whatever the best plan is, that also hopefully pays the best, that’s the one we go with.”

Later that afternoon, after Hanks and Stuart and the sound man and the microphone are gone, and Russ Solomon thinks it over, maybe All Things Must Pass wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. Later still, after viewing the film, he’ll even cop to enjoying it. “I thought they did a really good job,” he says. “It’s a tough thing to cram what’s essentially 68 years of history and goings-on into [100] minutes. In general, they hit the nail on the head, if you will.”

So maybe the nostalgia counts for something. Maybe what they did at Tower warrants the attention. Sure, Solomon says, nobody went there just because it was Tower. They didn’t go just for the neon or the yellow bags or to get high or drunk or laid in the listening booths. They went because of what it sounded like—the best of times, the loudest of times. Maybe people will want to be saved from all this silence.

“It’s not that far back,” Solomon says. “It’s not 100 years. But I hope [the movie] takes people back to a time when the music business was a different business than it is today. Now, whether young kids are going to give a damn about that, I don’t know. But the older people—and there are a lot of them who experienced that—I think they’ll get a kick out of just the idea that that was part of their youth. That’s what it’s really about.” S