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Movie Review: Other Music
75%Overall Score

Formed by employees of the eclectic Kim’s Video and Music, who decide they would rather operate their own shop than work in the back of the store for someone not particularly passionate about music; Josh Madell and Chris Vanderloo recruit Jeff Gibson into their plans and rent out a space in the East Village of New York City. The mid-90s are a boom time for music sales, with CDs reigning supreme. Even with the huge Tower Records blazing red neon across the street, there is plenty of business for the newly christened Other Music, as they carve out a niche for artists outside of the mega displays clogging the aisles at Tower and Best Buy.

As the industry changes, Other is forced to adapt again and again, while still trying to stay true to their voice in the community. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that eventually they are forced to close their doors. It is after the decision to close that we begin our story.

Starting their coverage with just over a month remaining in the store’s life, filmmakers Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller splice their Other Music footage of those final days with a bevy of talking head interviews featuring musicians, staff, authors, actors and customers. The duo met through Other, where Hatch-Miller was on staff and Basu was a frequent customer. That bond informs their celebratory approach, and also provides them access to the critical tapes of in-store performances and the tribute concert (headlined by Yoko One performing with Yo La Tengo) that might be a big draw for viewers.

The movie tries to be an unabashed love letter to Other Music, and in turn, a love letter to scrappy record stores everywhere. Where it turns that love into an analysis of the music industry on the whole over the last two decades, it is less successful. When the film works best, it is not unlike the footprint of the record store itself – surprisingly small and intimate. These mini portraits of the many staff members pick up where the story departs from its early affection for founding partner Jeff Gibson. It is Gibson who turns half of New York on to the joys of Serge Gainsbourg, and who beams for the camera during a shockingly rare appearance of The Monks in full regalia in the shop, at a time when everyone in the movie reminds you that you could only discover the legendary garage band via rare batches of their German-only release.

When Gibson leaves the business, making his move to Belgium in 2001, there is a strong succession of employees on the floor who help put vital music in new and welcoming hands. Their tastes shape what the store orders, expanding the selection of genres, though it remains tightly curated (and never veers into metal, simply because they never had someone there who was really passionate about that genre, Madell notes). Those free, in-store concerts continue, and there is phenomenal footage here of everyone from Vampire Weekend and Jeff Mangum to The Go-Betweens and The Rapture to Conor Oberst and St. Vincent to The National and…well, you get the idea. Those concerts reach a defining moment when outsider pop maverick Gary Wilson emerges from the back room covered in talcum powder and proceeds to duet with a mannequin. Wilson is there only because the store has been championing him nonstop, and single-handedly selling out his 2000 Motel Records reissue, making New York’s concerts the first he had performed in 20 years, something that would be unthinkable without Other Music’s help. The mix of utter joy and sincere pride that the staff feels as they watch the show says more than you could imagine.

In highlighting the cast of characters that man the counter, the film does a nice job of showing one of the big things that separated Other Music from many record stores, which was the large number of women on staff. In fact, two women are the secret heart of the story; the most engrossing parts of the movie are the interviews with Lydia Vanderloo and Dawn Madell, the wives of the owners. When Vanderloo reveals that their husbands made no money from the shop in 2003, and then never recorded a livable wage afterwards from the business, it really underlines whether or not this whole operation was a good idea to begin with. Other outlasted the Tower Records across the street from it, which closed in 2006. (Moving in across from Tower is painted as both shrewd and certifiably insane, and the band Refrigerator highlights that dichotomy by shouting a song about Tower while playing inside Other). However, Lydia unintentionally lets the audience know that the only way Other survived beyond 2002 was via her and Dawn’s commitment to subsidizing their families, allowing their husbands to keep the lights on and make sure their employees were paid.

The weight of the closure, and the sacrifices they have made to even get to this point, hangs heavy in the air when Lydia and Dawn are on the screen, adding a tension that is absent elsewhere in the feel-good approach everyone else adopts. Obviously, the creative brief was to celebrate the store, but a truly brave filmmaker could have really dug in here and made something potentially heavy and unexpected. I know I would have loved to watch that movie.

An interesting evolutionary dynamic is also evident upon closer inspection. Chris Vanderloo is described as the personable half of the pair who is most likely to be out chatting with customers. Yet, he appears the most affected by both the filming and the closing of the store. It is definitely Lydia Vanderloo who gives voice to his experiences in running Other for 20 years. On the flipside, Josh Madell admits to staying in the back and operating the admin side, where his personality might be best suited. However, Madell embraces the attention and welcomes the therapy session of the filming in a way Dawn seems wary of, and it is Madell that jumps on stage to play bongos with Yo La Tengo, grabbing the microphone at the close of the tribute concert. 

Record stores that become truly ingrained in the consciousness of a city often do so by being married to a burgeoning music scene. Post 9/11 New York embraced a guitar-based collection of bands that cynically lived their lives as if there might not be a tomorrow. Chronicled by Lizzy Goodman (interviewed in the film) in Meet Me In The Bathroom, stalwarts like Interpol were selling CDRs of their demos on consignment at Other. By the time a band like Vampire Weekend had arrived, that bond with the city meant that the only place you could purchase their recordings in the early days was the Other digital store. The detour into detailing the store’s dalliance as a digital outlet adds a colorful Lou Reed aside, but feels more perfunctory than crucial to the shape of the narrative. Most folks will just want more perspective from members of TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The overlap of Other’s importance to the music scene and the day to day operations of the shop only really becomes apparent when discussing Animal Collective. After moving to the city, Dave Portnoy (Avey Tare) mans the mail order for the store, and is joined by Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) on staff; on stage, the duo start to perform with Brian Weitz (Geologist). It is a fascinating look at the early days of the band, and all three acknowledge the importance of the store in fostering that period. You will have to watch it yourself to find out how Portnoy did in his employee evaluations. Regardless, it is not lost on the viewer that Animal Collective are soon seen playing for tens of thousands as the crew at Other watch the record racks be broken down and loaded onto a junk truck.

On a personal level, Other Music was always a favorite visit when in New York. I was drawn to them early on when noting that they were using the same font as Spacemen 3 in their logo. There are few ways to properly describe the pride I would feel when walking in and seeing a record that I had designed or helped release sitting on the featured wall. When bands talk about feeling like they’d finally made it when they got a personalized name card in the racks at Other, I know a little about how they feel. For record nerds, every big city had their version of Other, and watching this movie offers a lot of comfort as you recall your own record store experiences, especially now, in a time when many of us are desperately missing that interaction.

This film might unexpectedly soothe the soul with warm memories. Show up for that record store love. Enjoy the surprising performances along the way. (Never ever forget just what a blast Apples In Stereo were live!) Laugh at Beans recommending his own record to store shoppers. Stay to analyze the tiny flashes of deeper emotions and wonder about the film that might have existed within the film that was eventually made.

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