The esteemed literary editor of The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, recently wrote a much-discussed piece on the imminent demise of his favourite record store in Washington, and the parlous state of independent record stores in general. “A record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal,” he asserted. The “devastation” of such stores may seem “economically legitimate,” inevitable even – but “it is culturally calamitous. In a word, wrong . . . [and]constitutes one of the great self-inflicted wounds of this wounding time.”
The staff and clientele of Sound It Out Vinyl Tapes CDs DVDs in Stockton-on-Tees in northeast England don’t appear to be subscribers to The New Republic. Nevertheless, they’d be 100-per-cent in accord with Wieseltier’s sentiments, based on the heartfelt encomiums and testimonials offered to Jeanie Finlay’s camera in this delightful, bittersweet documentary, originally released in Britain as “the Official Film of International Record Store Day 2011.” (The 2012 edition happens on Saturday.) An elegiac pall hovers over most of Sound It Out’s 75 minutes, not least because the borough of Stockton, pop. 190,000, is one of those deindustrialized wastelands of high unemployment and little hope that dot England’s North. Yet even in its hardest times, it had been able to support six or seven independent record shops – until, that is, digitization and the Internet wrought their peculiar destruction, leaving Sound It Out (and its inventory of 50,000 discs) as the last store standing. Or should that be crumpling?
As elegies go, though, Sound It Out is long on low-budget charm and humour, or at least it seems to be: The accents of some of its “cast” are so thick on occasion that the film could benefit from subtitles. Finlay ( Teenland, Goth Cruise) centres her homage on the store’s long-time paterfamilias Tom Butchart, a stocky, genial, encyclopedic sort with a blast of black hair who’d have been a character in a Nick Hornby novel 20 years ago if he weren’t already living in real-time high fidelity. When she’s not capturing the goings-on in Butchart’s grungy, cluttered domain, Finlay’s visiting the homes, listening rooms and studios of Sound It Out customers. Guys (yes, even in its twilight, record-collecting remains a largely male endeavour) like Shane, an epileptic with cerebral palsy and fluid on the brain, who confesses to having attended at least 350 Status Quo concerts and plans to be buried in a coffin made from his melted-down vinyl discs, and Sam, an astonishingly articulate headbanger whose musical preference is “anything suffixed by the word ‘metal.’”
Sound It Out likely bears little resemblance to Wieseltier’s favourite music haunt in D.C. (which he says he’s visited for 30 years). But as Tolstoy might have put it, “good record stores are all alike,” whatever their size or stock or the number of tattoos sported by their customers. Through Findlay’s astute, affectionate eye, we see not just a dusty labyrinth of Velvet Underground, Albert Ayler and Nancy Sinatra records in plastic bags but a community centre, a some-time performance space, a venue dedicated to “active idleness” and the serendipitous discovery, a source of solace and uplift, and a generator of meaning. In a world of iTunes, audio streaming and social media, it seems genuinely social and personal all at the same time.
Sound It Out
- Directed, written and photographed by Jeanie Finlay
- Classification: PG
Sound It Out begins a limited run on Friday at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.