Rhino Resurrected

I saw the premiere of “Rhino Resurrected” on Saturday Aug.20… as the movie’s producers don’t have a distribution deal, I can only urge you, if you see another screening listed, to GO if you’re a music geek especially, and secondarily if you’re interested in LA cultural history.

The story of a record store and it’s off shoot record label (before Warner Brothers ate it) would seem to be a super obscure subject but think a real life version of “High Fidelity” and obnoxious record store employee Jack Black. The two hours fly by and it’s mostly like being in the company of a funny, smart, sometimes annoying bunch of music fanatics.

From a purely filmmaking standpoint, the movie is well-edited with very few dead spots. It is a mix of archival footage (stills, band performances, a few interviews) with more extensive present day interviews. The organizing device was the “resurrection” of Rhino with a temporary pop-up store last year. Overall this device works well structurally, but there a few too many shots of getting the temporary store ready for the public which slows down the movie. In general all tech. elements are solid. But this is a movie where content is everything, not how good or not good the cinematography is. And the content, as I said, was surprisingly interesting and often amusing.

As I’m originally an East Coaster, my first exposure to Rhino was through its superlative compilations of garage rock and soul.

But backing up, I was, and am, a huge Patti Smith fan. Indirectly because of her I discovered 1960’s garage rock. (It should be noted that because of my brothers’ record collections, I was already a fan of Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Airplane, Hendrix, Cream and all of the other well known 60’s greats etc.) Patti’s long time collaborator and guitarist, Lenny Kaye, had selected and produced the ground breaking Nuggets compilation of forgotten garage rock and psychedelic rock hits, semi-hits and rarities back in 1972 and then re-issued in 1976 on Sire. I would discover it in 1980 or so. Wanting to go deeper, and using those songs on Kaye’s compilation as the jumping off point, I was led, more often than not, to Rhino Records.

Rhino’s compilations would usually have the best sound quality, the best selection for the money and the most interesting liner notes. My visceral history of rock music was profoundly, though not in any sense exclusively, influenced by the tastes and quirks behind Rhino. My favorite Christmas CD to this day is Cool Yule with an incredible bunch of up tempo soul, r&b, rockabilly and rock X-mas originals or vastly altered traditional songs (e.g. a bouncy, danceable, truly joyous “Silent Night”).

So, when I came out to LA in 2000, I was a little surprised to realize that there were two brick and mortar Rhino Records stores: one in the Westwood section near UCLA and another on the LA county border in the college town of Claremont. The former, original store, had already lost the ethos that is so wonderfully chronicled in the documentary but I can still say I bought a few CD’s there.

I actually bought far more in the Claremont store because my first LA girlfriend (and more than that, eventually) lived in that town. I didn’t know then that the original owner Richard Foos had sold that store a long time ago – a fact I learned only at the Q&A after the documentary. Nonetheless that Claremont store still carried some of that vibe of community and quirkiness.

(Another tangential fact about me – over my life, the majority of my disposable income has gone into books and record/cd’s with movies a close third after that. Fancy cars, clothes, etc. have never held much appeal to me for while in a sense I could easily be accused of being a collector, it is only of things that produce an experience that truly matter to me; I am decidedly NOT a materialist.)

But what the documentary really captures that is so universal is the experience of going into your neighborhood record store, pawing through the record jackets… that sense of tactility of holding a record album in one’s hand… seeing the art work… reading the liner notes…chatting a little or maybe even a lot with the record store clerk… it was place where geeks could feel cool and sometimes even a community could exist.

The original Rhino Records seems to have been a particular special, maddening, annoying, enlightening. entertaining version of the above. But having been to many a record store first in my home town and then in the East and West Villages in NYC, I still recognized my own variants. I’m sure music geeks in Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, etc. etc. will too.

So, there was sadness and poignancy of something lost (both an era and a community). After all, we now more than likely sit at our computers listening to sound samples on Amazon, etc. or i-tunes and either download the music immediately or have a CD delivered to our door. In Los Angeles, there remains only one last Nessie – Amoeba Records… a hybrid of the old neighborhood indie record store and the Tower Records / Virgin Records corporate type store. You can still get recommendations there from fairly knowledgeable clerks and discover tons of obscure music. Not quite an intimate experience but still one I have to limit or otherwise I spend far too much money there. But once again, it’s the last of its kind. Fortunately, we still have live music so community is in no danger of completely disappearing.

Furthermore, all of the participants in the Rhino comedy drama have survived and found someway to keep doing something of value, so it’s not a depressing documentary but a poignant celebration.

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