Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Written, shot, and directed by Drew DeNicola, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is the story about one of music’s great cult bands who were part of the 1970s wave of power-pop as they were adored by critics but went unnoticed by the public at large. The documentary explores the career of the band that was founded by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell that would also include bassist Andy Hummel and its lone surviving member in drummer Jody Stephens. The result is one of the most compelling yet moving documentaries about one of the greatest bands that many people haven’t heard of.

The story of Big Star is an interesting one as here’s this band from Memphis, Tennessee who made three great albums in the 1970s yet under strange circumstances from poor distribution to a music scene that has no place for angst-ridden yet emotional power-pop. They were the band that never made it big but should’ve been big. When Brian Eno said that the people who got that first Velvet Underground record when it came out in 1967 to obscurity, those people would form bands. The same thing happened with Big Star where anyone who got across #1 Record, Radio City, or Third/Sister Lovers during that time when nothing was happening for that band. A band was formed as it didn’t just launch the alternative music scene of the 1980s and 1990s but also left a legacy of great music.

While the music is just part of the story, it’s a film that is also about the city of Memphis where in the wake of the arrival of the Beatles and the Stax label coming in the 1960s. A music scene of garage bands were coming out as one of these bands in the Box Tops scored a #1 hit in 1967 with The Letter as its vocalist was a 16-year old named Alex Chilton. After a few more hits, Chilton would leave the group where he would meet vocalist/guitarist Chris Bell who had ideas about forming a band of his own with friend in bassist/vocalist Andy Hummel that Chilton would be a part of as well as drummer Jody Stephens. For many in Ardent Studios that was run by John Fry, Big Star was something special as here was this band of two guitars, a bass, and drums with these great songs as many in the studio felt that here’s a band that will become big.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen when #1 Record came out in 1972 because its distributor Stax couldn’t get the record played through radio as there weren’t many copies printed. It would play into the many unfortunate circumstances for the band as a despondent Chris Bell left the band where he destroyed the multi-track tapes in response to the album’s failure. People like John Fry, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel (in a film interview before his death in July of 2010) would talk about a lot of these misfortunes that plagued the band despite being adored by critics. Most notably a rock critic’s convention in Memphis in 1973 where Big Star played to great adoration by the critics that boosted the confidence of the remaining members to make their second album Radio City that same year which unfortunately suffered the same fate as its predecessor.

Drew DeNicola and co-director Olivia Mori tell the story that is filled with a lot of heartbreak and frustration that showcased this brilliant band who fell to these misfortunes. Most notably a deal between Stax and Columbia Records that fell apart that played into the commercial failure of the first two albums. The film also plays into the fates of both its leaders in Alex Chilton and Chris Bell following these major setbacks where the former becomes part of the punk scene and tries to dismantle everything about Big Star. The latter would go into a deep depression as he tries to make all the music he can as Bell’s single for I Am The Cosmos/You and Your Sister was released in 1978 but didn’t go anywhere as Bell would die of a car crash in December of 1978.

It would take music magazines from Britain and bands that were emerging after Big Star’s breakup in 1974 that would give the band some attention little by little where Chilton and Stephens reformed with band in 1993 with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies as it includes a brief footage of the band’s performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1993. Through these archival footage, audio interviews, and pictures through some special animation by Ted Wiggin. The film reveals many of the things that happened during the band’s time as well as the chaotic recording of Third/Sister Lovers that revealed more of Chilton’s eccentric behavior.

Through DeNicola and Christopher Branca’s editing as well as the sound editing of Jeff Sellye, the film does have this structure that is common with most rock docs though its second act moves back and forth between the two fates of Bell and Chilton during Bell’s final years as his brother David and sister Sarah both talk about their brother. While a lot of the music in the film features the music of the band plus projects that Chilton was in as well as Chris Bell’s solo work. Music supervisors John Fry, Rick Clark, Cheryl Pawelski, and Brad Rosenberg also bring in some of the garage music of the Memphis music scene of the 1960s as well as some of the music like the Replacements whose song Alex Chilton is the most famous tribute as he would die in March of 2010.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is an outstanding film from Drew DeNicola about one of music’s great bands. Though people might know them from Cheap Trick’s cover of In The Street which is the theme song of That 70’s Show. There is a whole lot more to this amazing band despite the unfortunate things that had happened to them. Yet, it’s a documentary that fans of the band can definitely love while giving those who don’t know much about the band the chance to seek out all of that music and realize how great it is. In the end, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is a phenomenal documentary from Drew DeNicola.

Big Star Reviews: (#1 Record) - (Radio City) - Third/Sister Lovers - (In Space) - Keep An Eye on the Sky

© thevoid99 2013

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