I met Murray Gershenz, née Morris Gershenzwit, when I was probably 15 or 16. A lot of music at the time, especially the kind of music I was into as a teenager (old obscure country blues, old-time string-band music, and so on), was in no other format but vinyl, and you had to seek it out in dusty old record stores. Music Man Murray was just one of the places you ended up if you were looking for records in L.A. So I spent a fair amount of time inside the store as a youth.
I loved records. Still do. And I love great stories about Los Angeles that haven't been told. So when I read in the L.A. Times that Murray's collection was for sale, I took it upon myself to take a camera inside the store before it ceased to exist, forever.
At first, I imagined a sprawling, Boswellian biographical epic. In addition to the cavernous record store he had presided over for a half-century, Murray grew up in Depression-era New York, worked as a cantor and had a new, late-life career as an actor. There was a lot of ground to cover, and hundreds of thousands of records in his collection.
But once I got inside the place, I found a different story, and ultimately I decided to make a film about records that wasn't really about records. This is from an email I sent to some friends while shooting the film: "This is ostensibly a movie about a huge record collection, but that is just the setting. It is about 1) death 2) leaving a legacy 3) faith 4) fathers and sons. ... The central thing here is Murray's relationship with his son Irv."
I couldn't have told this story without Irv. Irv and Murray are perfect foils to one another — like most fathers and sons. They are also complete polar opposites. Irv is emotional and tends toward the abstract. Murray is practical, no-nonsense. They are both so surprisingly funny, and completely symbiotically attached to each other.
Irv wanted every biographical detail in the film — how could I not mention the name of each dog he had growing up? Or include the only photograph ever of Murray with mutton chops? That's insane! Irv is one of the most hilarious, endearing people I have ever met.
Of course, Murray had his own ideas about how the movie should be made. When I first approached him about making a documentary, he asked me who would portray him in it. When I asked him to travel with me back to his childhood home in the Bronx, where he hadn't been in a half-century, he refused on the grounds that it'd be about the least interesting thing to do, and such a bother to travel. And, when I suggested filming him listening to some of his favorite records, he warned me, "I'll do it, but it's not very cinematic." We ended up with one of the best scenes in the film.
There were a lot of moments I wished the camera was rolling for. One day, Murray showed me an old-timey revolver he kept in a desk drawer for self-defense. Another time, surprised to hear I wanted to film Irv's band playing a show, Murray chided Irv, "The movie isn't called 'Music Man Irv,' my friend!" Murray is such an amazing character, and has such a striking physical aspect, just filming him taking out the garbage, I felt like I had come away with another piece of cinema gold.
There's some other great stuff I did film that didn't make it into the film. Sarah Silverman told me a hilarious story about Murray and Ed Asner falling asleep on the set of her TV show. I also have a great scene with Murray's agent, who tried to make the film a SAG project, and Murray's other son, Norm, who collects exotic bugs. I cut everything away that wasn't from Murray or Irv's perspective.
I ended up with a small movie about a giant man. When I showed the movie to Irv and Murray for the first time, I was on pins and needles — what would they make of it? Irv gave me a huge hug and told me he had cried. During which part? I asked. During the part in the movie where he cries. And I got the highest compliment I could imagine from Murray: "Richard, I couldn't have done a better job myself."