“Record Store” documentary spins a delightful amount of loose ends

If you remember the title, which comes from the name of a record store in New Jersey, and look at the main photo showing the outside of that store, you might think you know what the documentary “Flipside” is about.

But within the first 20 minutes of the film, which premiered Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, you’ve heard about an aging jazz photographer, the Columbia Record Club, “This American Life” and Judd Apatow’s “Funny People.” And you will know that this is the case not the movie you thought.

Instead, Chris Wilcha’s “Flipside” is a documentary made up of loose ends and false starts, a tangled mess that can spiral into madness until it suddenly starts moving, thanks at least in part to David Bowie. It’s confusing and self-centered, but damned if it doesn’t work.

The film’s opening sections provide a brief overview of Wilcha’s career, which began with a 70-minute film called “The Target Shoots First” and now includes many commercials and unfinished films. Trying to snap out of his creative funk before admitting he’s officially commercial manager, Wilcha looks back on the funky, chaotic, and inspiring independent record store he worked at in high school and that of the store and owner Dan Dondiego is in love with hard times.

“What if I could help Dan and get people into the store?” says Wilcha, who does a lot of talking in this film. “If I’m going to donate money, why not make money for something I love?”

“Flipside” half-heartedly pretends it will become this film, but Wilcha keeps interrupting the record store chronicle to talk about other films he never finished, to the point where it feels like it will he uses this film to talk about other work he never finished as a way to avoid getting involved here either.

We learn that Flipside is a store in northern New Jersey that’s incredibly cluttered… that it smells like meat because he keeps his records in cardboard boxes he gets from the smoked meat joint down the street… that its owner comes from a family of… Hoarders are so stuck in their minds that Flipside can’t participate in Record Store Day because it doesn’t have a proper website… that a new competitor is coming, also run by a guy named Dan… and wait, have you heard of Heard of Ira Glass’s stage show? And do you know New Jersey’s crazy TV star, Uncle Floyd?

The pigeon tunnel

As it turns out, “Flipside” is as much about a record store as “Moby Dick” is about a whale. (Well, not in the same way, but you get the idea.) It’s a cornucopia of detours and digressions that never lasts more than about 10 minutes without changing the subject, unless it’s about Chris Wilcha’s various obsessions and passions. After a while it threatens to turn into a documentary about Wilcha not making documentaries anymore, or perhaps a midlife meditation that keeps losing its train of thought.

But, you know what? A midlife meditation that keeps losing your train of thought is somehow perfect. This is where David Bowie comes in, as his 2002 song “Slip Away” is a gentle homage to things past – including, strangely, the repeated refrain “Twinkle, Twinkle Uncle Floyd.”

Suddenly, this relatively obscure song connects the music, the ephemera, and the photos—and in a few minutes, Bowie helps tie all those digressions and asides together into something strangely, wonderfully coherent. There’s more after that – Wilcha isn’t satisfied until he’s changed the subject a few more times – but the fragments of the film have coalesced into an elegy, a reminder of all the things we leave behind along the way and the things that some of us refuse to leave.

I checked out Flipside because I have a few thousand LPs, a similar number of CDs, and hundreds of 45s and cassettes cluttering an old garage-turned-guesthouse-and-storage room behind my house. But in the end the film touched me not because it’s about the music, but because it’s about the chaos.

“Flipside” is a selling title at TIFF.

Adam Driver, Venice Film Festival

Brian Ashcraft

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