Home » New films: All Things Must Pass, Jem and the Holograms, and Rock the Kasbah
Arts Film Review

New films: All Things Must Pass, Jem and the Holograms, and Rock the Kasbah

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records
Directed by Colin Hanks

Colin Hanks’ documentary “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” chronicles the Sacramento based music business empire from its start, with founder Russ Solomon selling used jukebox 45’s in his father’s drug store, to its over-extended financial meltdown in the hands of creditors. With many of the original floor staff who later graduated into executive positions, as well as Solomon himself, sharing their recollections, both flattering and otherwise, it’s a fascinating business memoir but also a cautionary tale of expansion gone awry.

One thing that seems fairly clear is that in the early days there was a latent demand for inexpensive records that helped the first stores take off from the moment they opened. What’s also clear is that the operation itself was run in a “seat of the pants” style by Solomon with a trial and error “Sure, why not?” attitude to new ventures and ideas. And it worked for several decades as the music industry reinvented itself from singles-driven to album-driven, with CD’s eventually eclipsing vinyl, and with stores being opened around the world.

However, in a perfect storm of negative factors, that eagerness for expansion including into markets the company was unfamiliar with, over-extended the company’s finances just as music was transitioning from tangible media to digital file sharing. This, along with changes in senior personnel as a result of health issues, led to the bean counters taking over with a shift in focus to the bottom line from the free-wheeling corporate culture that had reigned since its inception. The successful Japanese stores were sold off (and for this reason they still exist like a microcosm of the former empire) and the rest of the company slowly slipped into liquidation.

The overall story makes for an interesting business case study as one can watch and listen and speculate as to what might have made a difference and when it would have been necessary – but it was also an industry that changed so fundamentally that many within it were caught napping (pun intended). That said, one thing that isn’t really addressed in the film is how certain other companies (Virgin, Dimple, Amoeba) weathered the storm somewhat more successfully, on different scales of magnitude and diversity and perhaps on more solid financial ground. Interestingly, in this context, one of the many people pictured in the film in a photograph with Solomon (in which they’ve both removed ties – a signature move for both of them) is Virgin (…Records, …Atlantic, …America, etc.) founder Richard Branson whose own entrepreneurial outlook on trying new products and methods is similarly accommodating.

But the film also works as a collective memoir of the lives of those involved from the very beginning, in addition to those affected by Tower Records along the way, including appearances from musicians such as Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl. But the luminaries take a backseat to the employees, many of whom started at the bottom and worked their way to the top, fueled along the way by the alcohol, drugs and free spirits the company seemed to welcome.

It’s also neat to watch this film having previously watched “Art Gods,” a documentary about the Tower Records art department and the way that they developed the recognizable in-store displays and character. Taken together, they serve as big picture and small picture examples of the same freewheeling culture.

One small aspect of the story hit home for me – that people often thought that various Tower records stores in other cities were where it had all started, with many of the early stores sharing that organic, ground up feel of a new business startup rather than some slick, subsequent opening. I first moved to Sacramento much closer to the end of the company’s run than the beginning, and certainly didn’t grow up with Tower Records as many did, and it was difficult for an outsider to fully appreciate that it all started here, especially having visited such stores as the iconic Sunset Strip location, which still sports its company colors.

“All Things Must Pass” is a neat film and a piece of Sacramento history.

Moviebriefs

In an odd and somewhat unfortunate coincidence, two other films focused on the music industry opened this week – although these openings would have been unfortunate regardless of their timing.

Jem and the Holograms” takes the main characters and many elements of the 1980’s animated television show of the same name, but grounds them in a stale and unimaginative reality, with certain other key plot points missing in action. Here, viral music sensation Jerrica Benton and her sisters break into the music business after she disguises her appearance – but not with the help of her father’s hologram-projecting robot, as in the series. Instead the robot “Synergy” is little more than a Roomba with an audio-visual Daddy-diary on board, leading Jerrica/Jem on a narratively pointless treasure hunt. And the film’s central conceit, that it’s so clued into the world of social media, fails as the initial recording that gets uploaded to viral acclaim is probably the weakest song in the film and seems more likely to have disappeared into Youtube oblivion. Unless the film itself gains an equally dubious online following, the final scene which sets up a sequel might have been better left on the cutting room floor. “Jem and the Holograms” is the costume jewelry of music films.

That same cutting room floor should have been littered with the entirety of “Rock the Kasbah,” a film unappealing enough to make “Jem” look relatively well formed. Bill Murray plays Richie Lanz, a low level music talent manager of the sleazy variety. The film starts out seeming like a character study of Lanz as he feeds off an under-developed but talented singer, Ronnie, played by Zooey Deschanel – until she suddenly disappears to be replaced in the plot by Kate Hudson as a stereotypical hooker with a heart of 401(k). Most of the action takes place in Afghanistan where Lanz had taken Ronnie to perform in a USO tour, and where “Afghan Star” is the local answer to “American Idol” style television talent shows. As part of an awful subplot about arms dealing (albeit with some interesting but unsubtle commentary on wartime opportunism and profiteering) and what might be Bruce Willis’ worst film role, Lanz discovers a young Pashtun girl to champion on the show. There’s a shoutout in the closing credits to an actual singer who challenged her culture’s norms by performing in this way – but it seems out of place at the end of a story in which that characterization plays such a small part. “Rock the Kasbah” is a film bad enough to have ruined careers if it hadn’t featured such well-established names.

New films: All Things Must Pass, Jem and the Holograms, and Rock the Kasbah via @sacramentopress

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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