REVIEW: Other Music – Documentary – An Iconic Musical Oasis in NYC Closes


Review by John Apice

Other Music – Documentary – An Iconic Musical Oasis in NYC Closes

Much of the music sold at this beloved NYC store is what Americana Highways readers may not find to their taste. But if you visited, you’d find rare, out-of-print CDs & vintage vinyl folk/blues/jazz/reggae, rock, & many, many independent artists. There was World music, foreign artists & exotica. Underground, techno, experimental hoopla from whackos who were indeed nothing short of – innovators. Maybe not as much as Tom Waits or Phillip Glass but innovative.

The store was in the Tower Records neighborhood. Despite a deluge of music between those walls, many wandered across the street to Other Music. Often, they had what Tower didn’t. They catered to the undiscriminating who sought the challenging, & not so mainstream.

The documentary (produced & directed by Puloma Basu & Rob Hatch-Miller) traces the origins (1995 to 2016) & its close due to (gasp!) what co-owner Josh Madell says was rising rents & the proliferation of streaming. He talks about the excitement of the store, its community & segues to its demise.

Throughout the 1:30 feature Other Music — after a limited theatrical run cut short by COVID-19 dropped Aug 25 (Production Company Productions/Factory 25) — the co-owners discuss the sacrifice & dedicated themselves to this baby. It does have slow spots that drag — but isn’t a drag. As it progresses, viewers will sympathize, be sad & angry that the musical oasis ended.

An Englishman says he makes a pilgrimage each year as another foreigner buys over $964 worth of vinyl. People ask questions, have opinions, & the staff assists with expertise. (I’m trying not to speak in the past tense, it’s hard). Scenes include a staffer putting a record on the turntable & esoteric music fills the room. No one runs holding their ears. The place was a mecca. I went 3 times.

Detractors will say “so what?” But the loyal crowds & musicians as depicted at the beginning, black, white, European, English, Asians, people from every stripe — came. This was a place where universality sought a common pleasure: Music.

Quite impressive for what was essentially a little store.

The place had what you didn’t know existed yet, needed for an acquired taste. Music from a basement down the street pressed on red vinyl or music from the other side of the world in a Trench town. Watching people fish with stiff index fingers through vinyl & CDs, read jackets, talk to strangers with jubilation about reggae, folk, or industrial – this was a discovery paradise.

Maybe a music aficionado will appreciate the film most. If so, it’s guaranteed to tweak nostalgia if you were ever there. Experienced its ambiance. The film is rich with customer, employee, musician recollections. Why they loved the hunt, recall the clever little handwritten notes on CDs & vinyl. Thomas Edison didn’t know what “world” he created when he made those cylinders.

Actor Benicio del Toro arrives for his box of records & says it’s like a religious experience. Sad episodes include the dismantling of displays. Bidding farewell to staff who briefly discuss their relationships with buyers (who they nicknamed). There were normal patrons, foreigners & music eccentrics.

There are slow moments some viewers won’t care about. Lovers of music & records will.

The genuinely enthusiastic employees on busy days with jubilant faces of visitors, & the chaos of moving product. I would’ve edited out some raw in-store performances to allow the film to flow more evenly. The clips depict a lack of polish, creativity, inane lyrics, no commercial potential. It’s a distraction from the story of Other Music. Some artists were indeed driven by the magic that is self-expression. No doubt. But it’s not about them.

Interpol, Sharon Van Etten & The National were impressive & that would’ve been enough. The store launched the careers of some artists. You can’t spite someone who wants to play music. A kid who listens to or buys music stays out of trouble.

The exceptional well-paced documentary has good cinematography. One person said – “everything that was cool about New York –– is Other Music.” When they sold some obscure Euro LPs — the record company had to repress the titles since they were deleted. A new generation will never know the satisfaction of finding that long evasive record or artist & finally find it.

Of interest toward the close is how patrons treasure hunt. They all hold (vinyl/CDs) in their hands as they peruse. Some have a few, some have many, but they all have something. As a document – the work is commendable despite being about the end of an era. I used to be excited walking around NYC discovering places like Other Music. I’m finding fewer now.

No more Woolworth, no more Wetlands, CBGB’s, & now no more Other Music. Sad, really.

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