‘Vinyl Nation’ Review: Doc Looks at Why a Dying Medium Became the 21st Century’s Physical Format of Choice

·4-min read

Is every day Record Store Day? It is for the several dozen interviewees of “Vinyl Nation,” a documentary that aims to not just explain the phenomenal LP resurgence of the last 15 years but break down any “High Fidelity” stereotypes about who’s driving the comeback. Record collecting may be a massive cult, but it’s also a rainbow coalition of enthusiasts, the movie argues. Geekiness is next to godliness for the women, girls, LGBTQ folks and people of color who are joined in the film’s record-collecting cast by — sure — some pasty, middle-aged, Comic Book Guy-looking types.

As an excellent piece of propaganda for the format, “Vinyl Nation” wants to portray vinyl hounds first and foremost as people who are maybe deeper into their feels than the rest of us — a diverse army of music fans who take to records’ corporeal qualities because the very element of touch triggers something spiritual in their hearts. But for all that high-mindedness, the movie doesn’t avoid the OCD side of a certain subset of LP hounds. Directors Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone have just about convinced you that vinyl is really a spiritual pursuit when Third Man Records head honcho Ben Blackwell comes along to explain why it’s important to find that Iggy Pop pressing out of Europe that has slightly different fine print on the sleeve credits than other variants.

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One of the smart things the filmmakers did is leave famous musicians out of it. Blackwell is probably the biggest “celebrity” among the talking heads. Names that would only be familiar within the industry explain the fall and rise of the format, which reached rock bottom in 2007, the same year that Record Store Day was invented to act as a defibrillator for a part of the music business that was in death throes. Attesting to the reversal of fortune are figures ranging from Amoeba Music principal Marc Weinstein to Laura Balance, the Superchunk bassist who co-founded the Merge label, to United Records Pressing plant owner Mark Michaels, many of them recounting near-death experiences. The movie also has next-gen types who don’t have memories of vinyl as being anything but resurgent, but address other issues — like Claudia Saenz, a DJ who wondered why she didn’t see other woman working the turntables at parties or nightclubs, and started the Chulita Vinyl Club for female solidarity. An Urban Outfitters buyer and a Crosley turntable rep mutually speak to the 18-to-26 market that may have only a faint awareness of this as a nostalgic pursuit, versus a 12″x12″ art piece that shows off your tastes to college dorm mates.

Early on, when the word “sacred” is invoked three times in the space of a few minutes, it appears as if this might really be a cult indoctrination film, but Smokler and Boone do eventually move on to a lot of the subjects that might interest the choir that already exists to watch this film. Like: Can the $30 price point for a lot of new LPs really sustain a boom market? What’s the deal with pressing plant backups, which leave punk bands in danger of extinction before they can get their LPs even manufactured? Can vinyl lovers really claim the aural high ground — as they almost uniformly do — when forums are filled with complaints of pops and clicks? (Third Man’s Blackwell says, “Audiophiles are the worst — they are passionate about all the wrong things about vinyl records,” before laughingly predicting that he “just dug my own grave” with that remark.) Hasn’t anyone who ever had to make a major move been sorry they ever amassed thousands of these things?

And yet, as the film’s witnesses keep repeating, music that you have to work for a little — whether it’s lugging boxes onto a U-Haul or just standing up to flip the side — feels a little more valuable. The cultic glow in their eyes as they say this will bring either rolled eyes or a chuckle of recognition.

But there’s at least one more big question, with “Vinyl Nation”: How many visually interesting or appealing ways are there to shoot someone picking up an LP jacket and gazing adoringly at it? Answer: a lot, actually, under Sherri Kauk’s glowing cinematography. (Kudos also to editors David Fabelo and Jason Wehling for balancing so many testimonials with not much sense of monotony.) “Vinyl Nation” may be conceived rather blatantly as a kind of United Colors of Benetton approach to celebrating the format’s fandom, but it really is heartening to see so many people who might have been left out of the narrative — from little kids to lesbian couples to an adolescent girl in her pink bedroom to all those women DJs — get emotional as they talk about how something so tactile touched their hearts. The clichéd word that’s most bandied about by vinyl enthusiasts really does apply to the movie that’s been made about it: “warmth.”

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