The new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me–a well-intentioned, reverent tribute by directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori–aims for a style as delicate as the band’s sound. The people that the filmmakers interview are intelligent, soft-spoken, and genuinely upset that Big Star couldn’t find mass appeal, even though it will seem obvious to viewers why the band didn’t catch on. Big Star’s leaders, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, weren’t cut out to play 1970s rock gods. One shunned the spotlight and the other was prone to depression. They weren’t exactly Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey.By 1974, the band was no more.For the uninitiated, Big Star’s songs were beautiful and elegiac, but Stax Records–the band’s parent label–didn’t know what to do with them and preferred spending money on successful acts. By 1974, the band was no more. During the 1990s, as new bands paid homage to Big Star’s influence, Chilton reformed the group with a different lineup (Bell died in 1978). Chilton played with the revamped Big Star until his own death at age 60 in 2010. Bassist Andy Hummel also died in 2010.
What would Chilton think of this movie? He often accused people of overrating Big Star, and he’d probably be dismissive of the fawning critics its features. He recalled the group’s recordings the way some people review themselves in old photographs–bemoaning their naiveté. Whereas most would burn these old photographs, Chilton could never completely burn the memory of his old band.It is the age of Pink Floyd, Genesis, and overwrought theatrics. Most are looking for something less bombastic. Big Star was what they’d been waiting for.The movie begins with promise. We’re in Memphis in the 1960s, where new bands pop up every week, and every schoolyard guitar player is trying to figure out how Jeff Beck gets his sound. Chilton is a local legend, having scored pop chart hits with the Box Tops at age 16. Meanwhile, Bell is an aspiring songwriter, fast-food worker, and engineer at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Bell and Chilton team up and record an album that catches rock critics by surprise. It is the age of Pink Floyd, Genesis, and overwrought theatrics. Most are looking for something less bombastic. Big Star was what they’d been waiting for.
How to describe them? The best I can do is to say they are The Beatles or The Byrds without the fun. And when they try to rock, Big Star sounds like sleepy poets trying to recount a dream while still in an early morning haze. Even the band’s declaration that “Rock and roll is here to stay” in the song “Thirteen”–their paean to adolescent yearning–sounds like a lament. They could make anything sound bleak.No rock documentary is complete without its tragic figure, and in Big Star’s case it’s Bell.No rock documentary is complete without its tragic figure, and in Big Star’s case it’s Bell. At one point, he felt overshadowed by Chilton, tried to destroy their debut album’s master tapes, and attempted to overdose on pills. By the time Chilton turned Big Star into a backing band for his own ideas, Bell was wandering through Europe hoping to record a solo project. A posthumous album of Bell’s was released nearly two decades later called I Am The Cosmos. The title cut was about how being connected to the universe isn’t quite enough. The repeated refrain “I’d really like to see you again” is haunting. It’s a great song, and it makes one wonder if Bell had actually been the driving force behind Big Star since Chilton’s solo efforts were far rougher and less melodic.
Bell died in a car accident at age 27–the age when tragic rockers are supposed to die. He remains a mystery to this day. The film mentions his interest in Jesus, but skirts the fact that he used drugs to kill his sexual urges. It’s hinted that he experimented sexually, but no relationships are mentioned. Even his connection to Chilton remains largely unexplored. Were they merely songwriting partners? Friends? The film provides no clear answers.
The reliance on veteran critics from Creem and Rolling Stone to vouch for the band’s greatness nearly brings the film into This Is Spinal Tap territory, which probably isn’t what the filmmakers intended. The critics speak of themselves as outlaws and non-conformists without irony–maybe imagining themselves as Hunter S. Thompson types–but in old clips they look like nerdy college dropouts trying to score free drink. Now they’re a bunch of fat guys listening to records in basements. It’s hard to take them seriously, especially since had Big Star had been a success they would’ve dumped them in favor of another unknown band. The public knew 40 years ago that music critics were a finicky lot. That’s probably why no one listened to them regarding Big Star.Had there been footage of Big Star playing a song to completion, we’d have a greater understanding of what the fuss was about.The film’s best moments involve Chilton. We see him as a talented and mercurial person, always turning from commercialism toward the darker corners of pop. Within a few years of Big Star’s end, he was playing in perverse “anti-art” punk groups. Chilton’s involvement with punk music lead to his producing The Cramps’ first album, Songs The Lord Taught Us. The scene where The Cramps play in a little studio, however, brings to light another of the film’s shortcomings. The Cramps are alive, raw, and wild. They hit us like cannon fire. Had there been footage of Big Star playing a song to completion, we’d have a greater understanding of what the fuss was about.
Then again, the lack of footage helps keep this band in the shadows. Maybe that’s what everybody really wants.