Some people believe there’s something sacred about vinyl records — 12 by 12, 33 rpm.
Kevin Smokler, a documentary filmmaker, would be in that church. And their comeback, he says, offers “a connective power of music in a divided political time.”
That renaissance is documented in Smokler’s Vinyl Nation, a 92-minute love letter to records, which screens Oct. 29 at the Roxie.
“It’s about the benefits of the comeback of vinyl records in America,” said Smokler, who co-directed and produced the documentary with Christopher Boone.
The documentary shows them crisscrossing the United States, stopping at 14 cities to shoot at record labels, concert venues, in record stores and in music lovers’ homes.
“You finish watching and you feel like you’ve just made a new friend,” said Smokler.
Smokler is the author of three books about pop culture and a 20-year resident of San Francisco. In 2007, after acquiring a cheap turntable with an amplifier and speaker system from a friend, he grew to love vinyl records with no idea that they were in the early stage of a resurgence.
“It activates four of the five human senses,” said Smokler. “Listening on streaming is only for your ears. But a vinyl record is for your ears, your eyes, your nose, your fingertips.”
Vinyl records, he says, are beautiful objects, and hunting for them is like “digging for buried treasures.” He keeps a record player at the center of his apartment, accompanied by about 600 vinyl records.
“It seems like a lot, but is not a lot, compared to the people in our movie, and certainly not to people who don’t pay San Francisco real estate prices, and have basements or wings of their homes to give over to vinyl records,” he said.
In the spring of 2018, after spending a lot of time listening to records with his wife, Smokler came up with the idea of making a documentary about it.
“I was fascinated by how this old, impractical technology was taking on a new life here in the 21st century,” Smokler said. “It was suddenly appealing to a whole new generation of music lovers.”
Records’ popularity waned in the 1980s with the rise of cassette tapes. In the late 2000s, the ascent of the iPhone seemed to put the final nail in vinyl’s coffin, but Smokler feels that, in fact, this also kicked off a slow resurgence. “The idea that everybody could have their entire music collection on their phone paradoxically created an urge for some physical representation of music,” he said.
The pandemic witnessed vinyl sales rising to their highest level in two decades, but — also paradoxically —theater closures left the production team nowhere to showcase “Vinyl Nation.”
For Smokler, who refers to San Francisco as his hometown, the Mission is the heart of the city, and screening the film here is like “the completion of a long journey in a perfect circle.”
Naturally, he takes an optimistic view on the future of vinyl records.
“Who would have guessed that this way of listening to music, which we were pretty sure had gone forever, would come back and mean so much to people? And it means so much to people who did not grow up with it,” he said. “Vinyl is definitely here to stay.”
As part of the Decibels Music Film Festival, “Vinyl Nation’s” San Francisco debut will play at the Roxie Theater on Friday, Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. For more information and tickets, see here.