Music of cult band Big Star shines in uneven documentary
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.