SXSW 2015: Colin Hanks discusses his Tower Records documentary


Colin Hanks knows how his presence at SXSW looks.

A recognizable actor comes to a film festival, trailed by a group of his pals, to promote a movie he’s directed? It’s like a scene straight out of “Entourage.”

But days after the world premiere of his documentary “All Things Must Pass,” the 37-year-old star of the FX series “Fargo” insisted he was only at South by Southwest because he’d brought along his various creative partners.

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“We’ve been working together on this thing for seven years!” Hanks exclaimed. “I want to experience this with them.”

Simply put, their labor of love recounts the rise and fall of Tower Records, the once-powerful music retailer that went out of business in 2006, nearly half a century after it was founded by Russ Solomon in Hanks’ hometown of Sacramento. (Today Hanks lives in Los Angeles, just like his famous father, Tom.)

Yet “All Things Must Pass” also takes a broader -- and unexpectedly touching -- look at the rapid change that’s beset the entire music industry over the last 15 years. He talked about the film, his entourage nearby, in a conversation in downtown Austin.

This movie triggers all kinds of warm memories for people who grew up shopping in record stores. But for people under the age of 25 or 30, that experience might not mean much. How’d you think about that as a filmmaker?

It’s true that going to a record store is not necessarily something that means a great deal to them. Or something that means anything to them. But if they’re music fans, I think people can appreciate the film for what it is. There was a part of me -- and this is a little wonky documentarian -- that wanted to explain the beginning and end of a specific era of time, which was the music retail industry. And because Russ was there at the beginning and was there at the end, he was great to tell that story.

But I needed to make sure that the movie is about more than just that -- about more than just this one guy and this one shop. It really needed to be about a family and about relationships and what that means to people. I always call it the “Hoosiers” thing. Yes, it’s about basketball in Indiana in the ‘50s. But really it’s about that town and the people that live there.


Some of the former employees you talked to, including Russ Solomon, are incredible characters. What have they been up to since Tower closed?

They’ve all gone through various jobs.

I ask because I think part of what the movie says is that Tower, with its unconventional corporate culture, served as this magnet for people who might’ve been unlikely to find a sense of belonging anywhere else.

Absolutely. They don’t have a resume for another job. Here are these people who got this job when they were 19. And they spent their entire lives doing it, then they had to fire each other. That’s why grown men are crying in it. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like as an individual, as a man, as a husband or a wife. What do you do next when you feel like you’re not equipped to do anything?

Did you see Dave Grohl’s film “Sound City”?

Of course.

It does something similar. You think it’s going to be about this old mixing board, but it actually profiles these unique personalities.

This is going to sound blasphemous to some, but I’m not a huge Stevie Nicks fan. But when I watch “Sound City,” I’m looking at Stevie Nicks in a whole new way.


During a Q&A after your SXSW screening, someone asked you where you thought music fans were congregating now that so many record stores have closed. You said concerts, and to some extent that’s true. But I think the real answer is that they’re gathering online. And that’s a situation that many older people regard as fairly tragic.

I straddle both generations. I understand people thinking, “Oh, that’s really sad.” But, look, I’ve made friends online that have become friends in real life.

“IRL,” you mean.

I’m not so young to call it that. But I don’t necessarily think of it as a bad thing that that’s happening. Good music is so much easier to find now. Since I started making this movie, I started streaming music, which was something I never did before. And when I discover bands, then I go and buy the record, because I’m weird like that. I’m a little bit of an old man in that regard.

In a way, that transition from physical to digital also played out in your experience making the movie.

Completely. When we started the movie there was no streaming Netflix. Video on demand was still this weird thing that most people didn’t understand. And documentaries -- I mean, if it didn’t go into a movie theater, it died somewhere in the unknown areas of the world. Now, all of a sudden, the conversation isn’t, “Oh man, I saw this movie on Netflix.” It’s always, “I saw this great documentary.”


In the movie we see people in the music business who are excited about those changes and people in the music business who resist them. How do they strike you as a filmmaker?

Oh, they excite me incredibly. Because now the gates have opened. You can go make a movie. You can go make a documentary. And, yeah, money’s always going to be an issue for everybody, but there are ways you can do things that quite simply have never been done before. Marty Scorsese just had a commercial about making documentaries on an iPad! Are you telling me kids aren’t going to be doing that? I understand the filmmakers that want to preserve film, and I think that’s noble. But there’s no reason a kid in Michigan can’t make a movie on an iPhone.

In spite of these new technologies, it always strikes me that Amoeba Music in L.A. stays pretty busy.

They found the right way to do it.

A way similar to Tower in its heyday?

Yes. But the striking difference is that Amoeba sells used CDs. And for the people that still go that route -- and there are still people that only buy CDs -- that’s the best way to do it. It’s cheaper. The greatest irony that we found by doing all of this is that Russ started by selling used records. And yet he refused to sell used CDs! If you wanted to try to pinpoint one thing [for Tower’s demise], that might be it. If he had just sold used CDs, it would’ve supplemented not all of the lost income, but enough to maybe keep things going.

You think so?


Show me a college student that doesn’t want to make a little extra money. And that gets them into the store. “Used” is not the dirty word that it was before. I don’t blame Russ for not wanting to sell used CDs. I remember when they started to sell them -- I thought it was really weird. But hindsight is… well, whatever’s better than 20/20. As Russ says, “You look back on your mistakes, and you definitely made them.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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