Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opened on July 3 at the IFC Center in New York and is now playing throughout the country in select independent theaters. The film is a documentary about one of the greatest bands that never made it big, the unfortunately named, Big Star. The documentary opens with one of the defining moments of Big Star’s career, a concert they played in front of music critics from all over the country, who had gathered in Memphis for the supposed reason of organizing a union of music critics. However, the organizers of this event secretly intended to bring attention to a little known Memphis group, namely Big Star. It worked, at least to some extent. One of the critics interviewed for the film recalls with bemused surprise that she even saw critics dancing at the concert.
Big Star are, in a sense, the ideal pop group for music critics– smart, contagious pop music that you can dance to without feeling embarrassed. Alex Chilton, Big Star’s best known band member once said, “Most of the Big Star stuff was searching for how to get through two verses without saying anything really stupid.” That might be selling the group a bit short. Chilton was notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude toward the band that he would be most associated with throughout his prolific, if scattered, and at times sloppy career. Three years before he died in 2010, Chilton summed up his opinion on the group that he was constantly asked about in interviews: “I’m not as crazy about them as a lot of Big Star cultists seem to be. I think they’re good, but then again, I think Slade records are good, too.” Another critic admitted that Big Star was a group that critics didn’t want to share with the world. Instead, they preferred to keep them for themselves: the little band that everybody liked.
Part of the reason for the group’s lack of success was simply bad luck. Signed to Ardent, a local Memphis label tied to the more well known Stax, the band’s records received distribution by Columbia, but the corporate executives in New York cared little for this pop band from Memphis. They weren’t heavy enough for the ’70s rock scene, and they were from Memphis, a town much better known for its soul music than its rock scene. Though they received rave reviews in places like Rolling Stone, many towns didn’t even carry the band’s records in their stores or give them radio play. In the pre-Internet age, this meant that there simply was no way for the average music fan to hear their music. The band, and in particular, the band’s founder, Chris Bell, desperately wanted the adoration received by their heroes, like The Beatles. That adoration came, but not while the band was still around. In gushing interviews, musicians from bands such as Hot Chip, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cheap Trick (whose cover of Big Star’s “In The Street” is the theme song for That 70’s Show), R.E.M., and, of course, The Replacements (whose song “Alex Chilton” introduced many of their fans to Big Star) speak of their fondness for the band, and the influence of Big Star on their own music.
Unfortunately, the delayed adoration was little solace for Bell, who left the band after the group’s first record, the hopelessly optimistically titled #1 Record. Bell is the truly tragic figure of the film. Chilton, though far better known, comes off as self-obsessed and spottily brilliant–the kind of guy it might be fun to share a drink with, but not necessarily work with every day (Big Star producer Jim Dickinson recalls at the beginning of the film seeing Chilton tripping on acid as a pre-teen and thinking that he was in for an interesting life– that’s certainly true, but he seemed to lack the emotional depth of Bell). Bell was tormented by several things– first of all by the fact that #1 Record was a flop, selling fewer than 10,000 copies. The reviews, though positive, concentrated mostly on Chilton’s role in the band. Chilton had previously served as lead vocalist for The Box Tops, a more traditional blue-eyed soul group from the late 60s, who had a hit with “The Letter,” a song that features a teenaged Chilton with an almost impossibly deep sounding baritone. Perhaps most significantly, Bell was (probably) gay. This is a fact that is hinted at several times during the film, though never declared outright. His gayness was certainly never referenced in the group’s music, or Bell’s later solo output. Bell’s brother recalls that Chris turned to Jesus, as well as drugs in order to distract himself from issues with his “sexuality.” Coming from a wealthy family in the south during the era before homosexuality became more or less accepted in this country, Bell must have felt deeply guilty (some have even suggested that he was in love with Chilton, though that remains the realm of rumor and hearsay).
In the midst of a deep depression, Bell’s brother took him to Europe, where he took the haunting cover photo of Bell’s lone solo record, I Am the Cosmos. Bell stands with snow covered mountains in the background, looking very cool in a jean jacket and sunglasses, but also lost in his own troubled thoughts. One of Bell’s friends from school tears up when discussing that album’s title track. It is a song that would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Bell was a very serious person, who felt things intensely. Chilton was his opposite. Though Chilton’s song “Holocaust” off Big Star’s last album Third/Sister Lovers may actually be one of the saddest songs ever written, it is a song about lack of feeling, rather than the overflowing feeling that Bell experienced. Bell’s sister admits that she, like Chilton, does not understand the cultish following that Big Star has received since the band broke up. She would rather have her brother alive than the music that he left behind. Bell became a member of the 27 Club (along with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain), dying in a one-man car crash. Perhaps most tragic of all, the local newspaper reported his death as that of the “son of a restauranteur,” rather than the founder of one of the most beloved bands of American rock history.
Big Star’s story is a good one, filled with characters like Dickinson, whose wife sweetly recalls the time that Bob Dylan visited his eccentrically designed trailer park home (complete with Otis Redding‘s “decomposing” grand piano, on which he wrote “Dock of the Bay”) and said, “Jim, you must get a lot of thinking done here,” to which Jim replied, “Bob, I think all the time.” However, the film does not have much ambition to do anything besides simply report the facts. There are no experimental flourishes, or mythologizing, as in the more memorable Rodriguez documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Luckily, the story and Big Star’s music are good enough to stand alone. The most interesting and emotional segments of the film are those dedicated to the lesser known bandleader, Bell. The movie falters somewhat when discussing the years after Bell died, going into unnecessary detail about Chilton’s post-Big Star output. Nevertheless, it’s a film well worth seeing, especially for those interested in Big Star or the history of alternative music.