Tribeca Film Review: ‘Other Music’

Except for a small sliver of humanity, “Other Music” — a film about a late, legendary, left-of-center New York record store and the community around it — is not a date-night movie. In fact, the documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is almost a meta version of its subject, in that it’s proudly focused on the niche audience of record-store aficionados dedicated enough to watch a documentary (see also Colin Hanks’ 2015 Tower Records doc “All Things Must Pass”) or a drama that doubles as a sociological study (“High Fidelity,” based on Nick Hornby’s novel) about one.

But despite that, “Other Music” largely triumphs in its goal of documenting, celebrating and mourning not just a record store that was much more than a record store — for 21 years, it was an epicenter of the East Village alternative music scene and a destination for fans of offbeat sounds from all over the world — but also a neighborhood, a culture, a community and an era that, as the film shows with resounding finality, is as forever-gone as Swinging London or Haight-Ashbury or the Downtown Manhattan arts scene of which Other Music was one of the very last outposts. (As if to cement that latter connection, one employee in the film remembers Lou Reed’s assistant calling Other Music and saying how bereft the legendary songwriter was when its download store closed down.)

Using the run-up to the store’s 2016 closing as a framing device, the Kickstarter-funded film (which currently does not have a distributor) features many artists of the era who patronized the store — members of Vampire Weekend, Depeche Mode, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Animal Collective (two of whom worked there) and even actor Benicio del Toro — as well as its owners and employees speaking at length about its importance and vitality to their own art and to the music that they loved.

To quote my own eulogy of Other Music after its closing was announced almost exactly three years ago (disclosure: this writer patronized the store for its entire 21-year existence and has known the owners for even longer), “The best record stores are, or were, an epicenter of a scene. In the years before the Internet, they were the best place — along with certain left-of-the-dial radio stations, venues and (usually cheaply made) publications — to find and find out about not just music and artists and records, but to find like-minded fans, potential bandmates, burgeoning indie label owners, future best friends, future soulmates, a consensus.” That is the scene the film sets in its opening minutes, which have a slightly mawkish Rolling Stone-documentary feel as it contextualizes the culture of indie rock and record stores in general. But once the introduction is done and the doc is speaking to its tribe, it finds its groove.

The store’s three original owners met while working in the music department of a video-rental emporium and broke off to found Other Music in 1995. Almost immediately it found a thriving clientele, aided in no small part by a seemingly counterintuitive marketing move: It was located right across the street from the massive East Village outlet of the then-booming Tower Records. Yet that gave Other Music the freedom to double down on its niche offerings, and before long Tower employees were sending customers across the street.

The store became not just a vital cog in the alt-rock scene of the ‘90s but also dance and electronic music, avant jazz, multiple world musics and niche genres from the past: the doc details Other Music’s role in reviving French pop music of the 1960s, which its employees termed “decadanse,” among the many other genre names it used or coined as a way of organizing the inventory. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig says, “Growing up and going to Other Music, I literally discovered genres because of the way they would organize the music.” As the century turned it became a major incubator of the NYC rock scene exhaustively documented in Lizzy Goodman’s book “Meet Me in the Bathroom” (the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem), with many of those groups selling their first releases on consignment in the store.

Other Music was booming, and the owners recall that it had its best-ever year in 2000 and was on track for an even better one in 2001 — and then two things happened: 9/11 and the beginning of the digital-music revolution. While the former decimated many New York businesses, the long-term effects of the latter were far more destructive to the store: The Internet, Napster and illegal downloading (the precursor to streaming) meant that the pursuit of music no longer required the acquisition of a physical object, and that marked the beginning of the end of traditional record stores as a realistic business model. Other Music held on for a death-defyingly long time — outlasting Tower, which bit the dust in 2006, by a decade — but streaming was the final nail in its coffin, and the owners, who had long seen the writing on the wall, succumbed to the inevitable on June 25, 2016, going out with a New Orleans-style “second line” parade that marched from the store to a farewell concert at the nearby Bowery Ballroom, both of which are documented in the opening and closing minutes of this film.

While “Other Music” is maybe a bit over-long and sentimental (although there’s a lovely moment where a weeping customer says, “I’ve been coming here since I was 11”), more than any other visual document, it celebrates and immortalizes the culture of the record store and record nerds. “You could live in a dreamworld of esoterica,” one employees wistfully recalls; another is seen cracking the shrinkwrap on an album, sniffing deeply and saying “I love the smell of new records!” Another relates a sales tactic: “People love a good story — if they love the story, they’ll buy the record,” then the film cuts to the employee holding up an album by late Spinners singer Phillip Wynne and telling a customer, “He had a heart attack and died onstage, that’s some gangsta sh–!”

And, of course, the snobbishness that was a legendary hallmark of this and all insider record stores is addressed at length. Singer Regina Spektor speaks of feeling “first day of school”-level intimidation when asking questions of the staff; one employee attempts to attribute the snobbish vibe to impatience at repeatedly being asked the same questions; another says, rather more convincingly, “I was hung over, I wasn’t meaning to be a snob.”

Yet in what might be the most profound statement in the entire doc, The National singer Matt Berninger defends the snobbishness as a blow against the empires of mediocrity: “If your bar on art is high, then your bar on [other aspects of life] is high, and when art gets dumber, I think we all get dumber and meaner and sh–tier,” he says. “You should celebrate the stuff that’s better than the average.”

While the long testimonials to the insider knowledge, curation and sense of community that the store offered can feel a bit quaint and anachronistic — if not “get off of my lawn” — Spektor holds out hope that a new kind of community and “temple” can arise. Animal Collective’s Avey Tare (Dave Portner), a former and apparently failed Other Music employee, speaks of missing “people at a record store to talk to you about music” and laments the curation of streaming services: “Now it’s like robots are telling you what you like.”

But as much as “Other Music” is a love letter to a bygone place, concept and era, thanks to this documentary, people can go back and visit any time they like … well, almost: In another irony suiting the subject matter, until it secures a distributor, it’s out of print.

Tribeca Film Review: ‘Other Music’

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary), April 26, 2019. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production:(Documentary) (Int’l sales: Monoduo Films, Berlin.) Producers: Rob Hatch-Miller, Puloma Basu.

Crew:Directors: Puloma Basu, Rob Hatch-Miller. Camera: Rob Hatch-Miller, Puloma Basu, Mike Rossetti. Editors: Greg King, Amy Scott.

Cast:Ezra Koenig, Tunde Adebimpe, Matt Berninger, Jason Schwartzman, Regina Spektor, JD Samson

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