Reviews

The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store

Brendan Toller

usa, 2008

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 25 April 2009

Source DVD screener

Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston

“What the hell happened to all of our record stores?” asks Brendan Toller, the twenty-two-year-old writer-director of I Need That Record!: The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store, and his film provides viewers who share his indignation ample opportunity to celebrate and mourn. As someone who has managed to wax rhapsodic about the bygone days of hometown video stores, I’ll confess to being pretty sympathetic to Toller’s cause. Indeed, it’s easy to make a case for the romance of record stores as we once knew them: there’s something magic about an orphaned old record in a slightly musty sleeve bidding to make its way into your life, and something utterly charming about stores with real, distinct personalities in our era of slick big box retailers who only ever stock the new releases and Greatest Hits. As with old school video stores, indie record retailers held (and, when you can find them, still hold) the promise of discovery, and as Toller and many of his interviewees emphasize, they also fostered a genuine sense of community. (I had almost forgotten how much the indie record store of my youth had meant to my hometown music scene; stacks of homemade tapes with fluorescent labels resting near flyers for upcoming shows at local VFW and Knights of Columbus halls.) Perhaps it’s Chris Frantz, former drummer for the Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club, who captures the allure of the indie record store most succinctly in the film when he explains them as an ideal “gathering place for nerds who like music.”

Toller positions indie record stores as the home of “everything eccentric, weird, and fun in the music world,” and backs up his words by framing the film with the recent closing of his own hometown record store, Middletown, Connecticut’s Record Express, as well as Danbury, Connecticut’s Trash American Style. The stores really do look like great fun, and one of the greatest pleasures of the film is in meeting the their willfully eccentric proprietors and customers. It also lends heft to the film’s often-elegiac tone. Trash American Style employee Kathy notes that she’s “talked kids out of a lot of bad tattoos,” during her stint at the store, and wonders aloud who will do that now. “Towns should have places like this,” says Ian of Record Express, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore calls the digital revolution “really lonely and boring.”

Happily, while there are more than a few screeds about the music industry’s failings contained in the film, there’s more to it than that. Toller gives his documentary a solid backbone of research by serving up stunning statistics, and he digs into the vaults for fascinating archive footage: everything from Billy Idol enthusing over the rise of the MP3 in 1999 to George W. Bush toying with an iPod (and revealing a soft spot for The Archies) during an interview. Toller also gets Noam Chomsky himself to sit down and chat about the broader implications of the disappearance of indie record stores and small businesses of all kinds. Toller recognizes the myriad causes and effects of the record store’s decline (everything from high CD prices and rampant Internet piracy to the sweeping homogenization of commercial radio), and the wealth of information he provides makes this a rich investigation that covers a great deal of ground in its short running time without feeling rushed. The doc also sports a nicely barbed sense of humor, and animator Matt Newman’s creations break up all those talking heads (and, as I mentioned, one Talking Head), adding some welcome visual pop. (A collage-like animation of familiar pop acts like Ashlee Simpson and Justin Timberlake being pieced together as if from spare parts provides one particularly memorable image.)

And while most of the news is bad, as the film’s title suggests, there are some glimmers of hope amid the worry, sadness, and even resignation: Toller chats with Chris Ashworth, owner and president of United Records Press, a thriving company that still presses vinyl; and Mike Dreese, co-founder Boston’s own Newbury Comics, a rare chain of successful indie stores. Trash American Style’s Malcolm emerges as an endearing stalwart, vowing to stay in the business he loves even after his store is shuttered. (One of the film’s best moments finds him joining in on a wonderfully defiant sing-a-long to the tune of the Velvet Underground’s “Ride into the Sun” at his store’s closing.) Toller also stresses the power of the consumer to shape what businesses thrive, making the film something of a call to action. I Need That Record! possesses much of the same scrappy, rebellious spirit as its interviewees and the stores that they love, making it a must for anyone who dreads a future where everything looks and sounds the same.

More The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston

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