Mu­sic of cult band Big Star shines in un­even doc­u­men­tary

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Jill Wil­son

MEM­PHIS quar­tet Big Star is the clas­sic cult-band story: group re­leases three al­bums to crit­i­cal ac­claim but no sales; records lan­guish in the bar­gain bin un­til the ’80s, when the group is re­dis­cov­ered and cham­pi­oned by mem­bers of more fa­mous bands. It be­comes de rigueur among the col­lege­rock set to own a copy of #1 Record. Band be­comes an­other in a long list of acts that those in the know call “the best band you’ve never heard.”

Big Star: Noth­ing Can Hurt Me is an ex­haus­tive, well-made, loving look at the power-pop band’s his­tory and legacy that cov­ers al­most 40 years.

The doc­u­men­tary suf­fers, how­ever, from the lack of two voices, ar­guably the most im­por­tant com­po­nents of what made Big Star what it was: singer-guitarists Alex Chilton and Chris Bell.

The lat­ter lack is unavoid­able: Bell, a tragic fig­ure, died in a sin­gle-ve­hi­cle crash in 1978 and didn’t live to see the band reach cult sta­tus. The no­to­ri­ously prickly Chilton de­clined to be in­ter­viewed (he died of heart fail­ure in 2010) and would no doubt have pro­vided a dis­sent­ing voice — he was known to be un­ro­man­tic about his his­tory with the band.

Film­mak­ers Drew DeNi­cola and Olivia Mori do sur­pris­ingly well with­out their in­put, draw­ing on an as­ton­ish­ingly large ar­chive of lovely pho­tos and footage from the ’70s, along with in­ter­views with drum­mer Jody Stephens (the only re­main­ing liv­ing mem­ber of the orig­i­nal lineup), bassist Andy Hum­mel, who died of can­cer in 2010, and a host of other talk­ing heads that in­cludes mu­sic crit­ics, fam­ily mem­bers and em­ploy­ees of Ar­dent, the Mem­phis stu­dio where the band got its start and where its ca­reer was nur­tured.

The struc­ture is chrono­log­i­cal and there isn’t re­ally an over­ar­ch­ing con­cept — it’s the story any­one who’s ever loved an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated band has heard a hun­dred times. In the pre-In­ter­net world, all the rap­tur­ous re­views in the world couldn’t over­come the fact Di­rected by Drew DeNi­cola, Olivia Mori Cine­math­eque, tonight and Thurs­day PG 113 min­utes

out of five the al­bums had no dis­tri­bu­tion and were doomed to be un­heard by all but the most tuned-in mu­sic fans.

Bell’s hopes were dashed. Ap­par­ently frus­trated by crit­ics’ fo­cus on Chilton’s role in the band af­ter the re­lease of their de­but (Chilton, as the for­mer teen singer of the Box Tops, was the nat­u­ral star), he be­came de­pressed and at­tempted sui­cide.

“Big Star never had to face the big mir­ror, star­ing your­self right in the face night af­ter night, try­ing to pay for the damn bus,” says Ar­dent en­gi­neer John Fry of Bell’s dis­ap­point­ment when the band’s de­but fiz­zled de­spite pos­i­tive press. “But the fan­tasy which all starts when you’re strum­ming your ten­nis racket in front the mir­ror, the fan­tasy was able to grow… un­til, voilà.”

Bell left the band and tried un­suc­cess­fully at a solo ca­reer. Re­ports of his fa­tal ac­ci­dent make no men­tion of his mem­ber­ship in Big Star; the band’s legacy was still to come.

An in­ter­view with his brother and sis­ter is heart­break­ing; even sad­der is lis­ten­ing to his one solo 45, on which Chilton sings backup. You and Your Sis­ter’s ef­fort­less har­monies have an un­der­ly­ing fric­tion that is so melan­choly, it can’t help but bring tears to your eyes.

Bell would likely have loved to hear mem­bers of Teenage Fan­club, Je­sus and Mary Chain, the Re­place­ments, the Flam­ing Lips and R.E.M. pro­fess their ad­mi­ra­tion for his work.

The movie’s lack of real nar­ra­tive and its at­ten­tion to minu­tiae will ap­peal only to the con­verted, but its lav­ish use of the band’s mu­sic does pos­si­bly prove Big Star deserves that “best band you’ve never heard” moniker. When the gor­geous, should­abeen-a-hit Septem­ber Gurls plays on the sound­track, it’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine a mu­sic lover of any stripe not be­ing im­me­di­ately trans­fixed — and trans­formed into a fan.


From left, Andy Hum­mel, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens of Big Star.

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