Happy September! Typically the mood at the Michigan and State theaters this month is “Tis’ the season”, as we welcome the first wave of films with Oscar buzz. For movie lovers like us this month may be a little bit different, as the industry is just now starting to release their Summer slate, but for music lovers and vinyl collectors, a holiday tradition was able to continue last Saturday. For many vinyl collectors and aficionados, Record Store Day is like Christmas morning and it’s no coincidence that last weekend we opened an exceptional new documentary that proves this: VINYL NATION, from Ann Arbor native and long-time Michigan Theater supporter Kevin Smokler and his co-director Christopher Boone.
The documentary traces the renaissance of vinyl records over the past decade, one that has brought new fans to a classic format and transformed our ideas of the traditional record store. What’s special about the film is not just its coverage of a revitalized product, but that the filmmakers place an equal focus on the community built around record stores and the place the record player has in the home for many families today.
To document the true national resurgence, Smokler and Boone make their way up and down the United States from New York to California, Michigan to Texas, and Kansas to Kentucky. On the way they meet collectors, musicians and journalists of all kinds, who each express their love for vinyl in truly unique and affectionate ways. Their love for records goes far beyond their love of music, as most of the subjects in the film find connection with their family and loved ones through vinyl or see records as conduits for “magic” that provides happiness in their daily lives.
To put into context the place records have had in our cultural history for almost a century, what you’ll also get from watching Vinyl Nation is the history of records from birth, to death, to reincarnation. Record players were once a portal that brought culture into the home, especially for lower income families that couldn’t afford a television, and skyrocketed with the suburban flight in the late 1940s.
Then, of course we all know that with the advent of cassette tapes, CDs, and eventually the iPod, vinyl records become essentially obsolete for many. As a television reporter in the film puts it, they went the way of “drive-in movies and gas guzzling cars”. But today, in our consumer age driven by social media trends, they found their way back into the hands of young buyers. Now, hip businesses like Urban Outfitters have become a center for record purchases, and #Crosley (the record player brand) has become a successful theme for Instagram influencers.
What’s honorable and relieving about this documentary is that as much it celebrates the return of the record store, Smokler and Boone remain objective on their stance as the real pros and cons of the renaissance are valued. Because as trends like #Crosley are brought up, we find that this kind of demand has led to price inflation, meaning new artists have limited access to print their music and budget collecting has become a difficult practice. And we also spend some time on the environmental impact the production of physical media causes, and the problematic gender biases that tend to flourish in the collector’s environment.
But while speaking with the film subjects about these issues, you find that most will take two steps forward if it means that one must be taken back. You’ll hear promises to spend less time in the shower and consume less in other areas if it means they can still continue to support physical media. And the filmmakers also aim to break the stereotype of the problematic white, male record collector by speaking with a diverse cast of collectors who are happy to shred this outmoded image.
In the celebration of the vinyl records, the subjects glow with the “magic” that occurs when the needle touches plastic. One describes the scratching hum of music through the needle as some kind of “zork shit”. And then we are given access to witness the birth of each individual disc. We see the assembly lines where they’re printed, the care that is taken by employees for quality control, and the uniqueness and artistry that come even inside the record sleeves. We take a trip to Third Man Records in Cass Corridor of Detroit where we meet the staff working to ensure every record they produce remains unique. We find that the “magic” that is said to be emitted from each disc is a manifestation of the love and devotion that goes into its production, which reverberates through us and into those we hold closest as well.
Near the end of the film, it strikes its most personal tone as a collector attributes her love of records with an appreciation and desire for “human connection”, something I think we can all empathize with currently. The film makes us understand that the record store offers, above all, an avenue into real human interaction, not just between yourself and the music, but between you and the record store owner, the other customers, and the chance to lend records to loved ones as a way to express appreciation. Stephen Thompson of NPR adds “I want to share the things that I love with the people who will love them.”
So put on your favorite record this week and find that connection, and don’t forget that tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 2 at 7:00 PM, I’ll be speaking with Directors Christopher Boone and Kevin Smokler on Facebook Live about their film and taking your questions! And once you’re done, I can’t recommend the documentary Mr. SOUL! highly enough to pair with VINYL NATION, another film that opened last Friday that examines the 1960s/70s television program SOUL!, a piece of music and television history we must all know and understand. When you’re done, there’s another podcast episode worth your time, in which I interviewed Director Melissa Haizlip about the continued legacy of Soul! and her uncle Ellis Haizlip. Give it a listen and have a great week!
#SaveIndieFilm #SaveYourCinema #SaveRecordStores