Even though movie theaters are closed during this pandemic there are other ways to see films, such as via Netflix and many streaming options. For those who would like to see first-run films which would be in theaters now, Albuquerque’s own independent Guild Cinema is offering home viewing options. You can find a wide list of films at Guild Cinema, and a portion of the screening fee goes to support the Guild. Unless otherwise noted, all films reviewed here are available at that link. This is a time to support each other and local businesses (including newspapers), if you can!
Vinyl Nation HHHHH Directed by Christopher Boone and Kevin Smokler. Plugs: The record industry in general. Available at GuildCinema.com for a limited time. There’s been a recent slew of what might be dubbed nostalgia documentaries, films that look back fondly on historical trends and their efforts to remain relevant. Vinyl Nation is a recent entry about music record albums, along with California Typewriter (2016), which sang the virtues of old-school typewriters and focused on California Typewriter, one of the last typewriter repair shops in America, and The Last Blockbuster (2020) about, yes, the last remaining Blockbuster Video store in the world.
Vinyl Nation co-director Smokler is author of the book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ‘80s Teen Movies (full disclosure: I have a signed copy, purchased at the Guild) which ably mines nostalgia for classic 1980s teen films such as The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Goonies, and many more. Netflix has a slew of current documentary series available including High Score (about the emergence of video games from Pac-Man to Mortal Kombat) and The Toys That Made Us (from Masters of the Universe to My Little Pony and the Cabbage Patch Kids).
There will be, I suppose, probably one day be a documentary about the magic that is eight-track tapes; I may pass on that one. One limitation of these sorts of films is that it’s sometimes hard to know what to include beyond the subculture of those wistfully embracing the medium. That’s the meat and potatoes, and satisfying to anyone who remembers or embraces records.
Vinyl Nation visits a dozen or so different cities where a diverse cross-section of audiophiles offer their insights, from record store owners to record manufacturing companies to the fans. And what fans they are! Vinyl Nation has its share of aging hippies who recount the first time they heard their favorite record, but extols the diversity of record fans, highlighting women, girls and people of color. The expanding demographic appeal of records has helped buoy the industry, with —as I was surprised to learn— Instagram stars promoting them. The audio snobs, a sort of blend of snooty wine experts and Comic Book Man from The Simpsons, are mentioned but generally disrespected; as one person notes, the record industry is precarious enough without their grating and dismissive presence.
Those in the film speak of the listening experience of a record, of hearing an album from a piece of vinyl in the order the musician wanted. No skipping or repeating. No random shuffle. Just a heat-and scratch-vulnerable piece of vinyl that is embraced for its limitations and tangible experience of interior art, liner lyrics, and so on. But at some point you’ve spoken to enough of a variety of subjects that you’ve hit on most of the main themes. Where do you go from there? Well, Vinyl Nation looks at how records are actually manufactured, from the tiny nuggets of raw vinyl to the pressing plates and the packaging.
Vinyl Nation is at its best when documenting the rise and fall (and somewhat surprising rise again) of the record business. In a world where books and records have been prematurely declared dead multiple times, the revival of the record is a curious case. I wouldn’t have imagined ten years ago that one could walk into a Target or Wal-Mart and buy a record, but sure enough there they are. One historian opines that record sales began declining around the time of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and never recovered. DJs embraced records, perhaps most popularly Terminator X of Public Enemy, Jam Master Jay of RUN-DMC, and DJ Spinderella of Salt-N-Pepa. It never died out and has been on the rebound for years.
Vinyl Nation feels padded and could have been about 15 minutes shorter —or used some of the time spend revisiting interviewees to instead look at other aspects of records. Album cover art, for example, is mentioned only in passing but is a significant part of the “record experience” that is so lovingly described. Perhaps some discussion or interviews with art directors behind iconic album covers might have been interesting to explore. To be fair, it’s not hard to find material on the images behind Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon, or Born in the U.S.A., for example, and you can’t cover them all but it might have been interesting to have fans reflect on the beauty of a great cover instead of a postage-stamp icon on a laptop streaming Spotify.
The perpetual vinyl-versus-compact disc audio debate is raised and soon put aside, noting that there are countless factors in how music sounds, from your speakers to your hearing to sound dampening in the room. Bottom line: if it sounds good to you, then it’s good. Vinyl Nation is an engaging documentary and walk down memory lane that may just make you dust off your record collection and give it some appreciation.