Documentary 'Vinyl Nation' Details the Renaissance of Records Through Diverse Voices

Crowds shop the bins during Record Store Day in Kansas City, MO. Photo: Sherri Kauk

Vinyl Nation begins on April 13, 2019 with a queue waiting outside the Mill Record Company in Kansas City, MO, at 5:30 a.m. No; it's not Black Friday. Instead, it's Record Store Day, and as the people wait for the store to open, they greet one another as old friends, keeping hush-hush about their most desired vinyl record, for fear someone else will grab it first. The doors open, and people of all sizes, ages, and skin colors enter and hungrily search through the carefully organized bins. Some share what they love about buying and listening to records, while a live band plays. The scene captures joy, community, and enthusiasm.

This intriguing opening scene sets the tone for the rest of this documentary about the renaissance of the record in recent years. Structurally, we visit a number of locales throughout the United States. At each location, we meet individuals, sometimes in pairs, who share their enthusiasm for records -- listening, collecting, and caring for them. Some have professional expertise, like a sound engineer or studio producer, while others began collecting as a hobby. Whatever the case, the people we meet on this journey have childlike enthusiasm for the subject. They strike the right tone between passion and relatability. There is nothing worse than watching someone being interviewed who feels self-important, and the people chosen for Vinyl Nation each represent the subject well. They operate as disciples, evangelizing and encouraging us to give it a try, even if we haven't listened to a record in years. Best of all, like the crowd observed in the cold opening, we hear from people of diverse ages, races, and genders. Diversity is a big theme throughout the film and directors Kevin Smokler and Christopher Boone ensure that viewers see how different groups are embraced as part of the community of vinyl lovers.

Records are pressed at Quality Record Pressings in Salina, KS. Photo: Sherri Kauk

Through these characters' voices, we learn how a record is made, how a record player works and plays the sound, how a record's price point is set, how people choose the records or record player they purchase, and the history of the rise and fall of the record's popularity in the 20th and 21st centuries. Other conversations include the fragile nature of records and the qualities that make records special. Our guests explain why they choose to listen to records instead of digital media and then argue the merits of the sound of vinyl vs. other formats.

Eventually, the conversation circles back to Record Store Day and how the event came to be, bringing context to the opening scenes of the movie. The central theme of this documentary rests in how and why records are making a comeback, so indeed, Record Store Day, a day dedicated to the format, deserves a spotlight.

Shoppers peruse the bins at the Austin Record Convention. Photo: Sherri Kauk

The last segment turns emotional as several of the guests think on the question of what will happen to their collections when they die. Several shed tears, thinking on the love and care they put into assembling their vinyl records. Even if you don't collect records, these musings on mortality hold a particular weight that will strike the heart of anyone who has had to think about dividing up their estate.

The production quality of the film has been made with the upmost care, with warm lighting and a crisp, bright quality, putting the center of attention on the people we meet. The camera loves to linger on their faces and capture the joy the people are feeling at talking about their favorite topic. Title text makes it easy to identify the names and geographic locations of the speakers. Editors David Fabelo and Jason Wehling keep the action moving and do a nice job weaving together the various subjects' voices. We hear from most of our guests numerous times throughout the documentary, and the cuts from person to person flow naturally. The backdrops they speak in front of are homes and work spaces -- many lined with vinyl used as artwork -- giving the interviews an intimate feel. We are seeing them speak in the places they cherish.  

While Vinyl Nation is sure to be appreciated by anyone who identifies as a lover and collector of vinyl, the content, editing, and delivery of this documentary will draw in casual viewers, as well. The authentic, relatable voices of the interviewed guests and the well-paced flow of information invite anyone curious about pop culture trends into the topic.

Release Info: Available to watch via virtual cinema through November 30th. Bonus: Your purchase of a virtual ticket donates 50% of proceeds to a local store or organization that could use financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Final Score: 4 out of 5.