It Came From Aquarius Records is a bittersweet tale of genesis, growth, and loss; in this case, for the widely beloved and overwhelmingly influential record store in San Francisco – Aquarius Records. The documentary (watch the film here) premiered June 3 at the SF Doc Fest to much acclaim, and it makes sense why: the film is replete with charming interviews in the company of a slew of personalities as eclectic as their music and, as a bonus, takes us across the world, from San Francisco to Finland, France, and Norway.
There’s something thrilling about seeing the likes of Matt Groening and Stephen Colbert appear in the same space as Ty Segall and Jacob Bannon. To see bands and musicians as varied as Circle, Longmont Potion Castle, The Mountain Goats, and Nails discussed alongside each other is a bewildering experience. But that’s to be expected: the genesis of the store was steeped in psychedelic rock, prog rock, and later, punk rock and new wave. Going into the ’90s, that further morphed to properly represent electronic and hip-hop. By the time it was finally bowing out in 2016, it was a purveyor of all types of ephemera, from compilations of silences from famous artists to numbers being read over Cold War-era military radio stations.
There is a turning point halfway through the film when the glamour of the glory days dies, and the grim reality of being pushed out of the city tracks with the general trend of small businesses and middle classes being priced out of their homes and into oblivion. As much as it is a story of love, nostalgia, and warm recollection, it is also a grim representation of the overall trend of cities and the effects being made on independent hubs of taste. San Francisco is one of the harshest cases of people and small businesses being priced out of the city, and its result is captured without melodrama but nonetheless still devastating effect on film.
The biggest problem facing creativity at all times is the money, and this case is no different. In particular, seeing “The List,” which was created every week with diligent care and attention by the store owners and shared out to a massive subscriber base (and its influence on people as far flung as Norway and France) is a testament to the inherent problem with attempting to be charitable or sharing creative interests – it just doesn’t pay.
Even more grim is the realization that this emerging trend is making a privilege out of brick and mortar stores in dense urban areas. That may be old news to some, and it may even sound sensible, but the entire reason that people flock to cities in the first place in part is the joy that cultural hubs such as Aquarius brought to its denizens. I know from my own experience from the decade I spent in Toronto that this often cruel and careless tide of industry crushed more venues and stores out of existence than the ones that still exist today that are worth visiting.
Despite the stark exodus (which was inevitable from the start of the doc) from the store that greets the viewer by the end of the film, the flick voices its determination that there will be future generations that discover, remodel, and represent the ways in which Aquarius Records provided creative deep cuts to its customers. “There’s always a new record; always a new story,” says Tom Henry Olsen, the man entombed in his labyrinth of floor-to-ceiling records, the #1 customer of Aquarius Records in sales. He says it with a smile, but we know from the dedication (one might say manic in scale) that his collection shows that he will bear the loss much like we, the viewer, have over the course of the film.
Overall, the film successfully weaves this tale with enough charm to spill over into other documentaries one might wish would be made about its charming cast of personalities. In particular, the lineup of store owners over the decades is a riveting watch, in no small part due to the genuine passion and interest they spark in the audience, for film and store alike. Today, the only things left of Aquarius are its cached website, social media groups, and this excellent artifact of its entire run.
Director: Kenneth Thomas
Release Date: June 3, 2022 (United States)
Run Time: 109 minutes
Artwork for the poster of the documentary “It Came from Aquarius Records”