Watching “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”
During my vacation, my friend Adam and I swung by the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., for a screening of a documentary about the legendary 1970s Memphis rock band Big Star.
Big Star never became a household name, and the band’s three albums were all commercial failures. But over the past several decades they’ve become a beloved cult band whose work influenced a number of more widely known bands, such as R.E.M. and The Replacements. The Replacements happen to be my favorite band, and my immersion in their catalog prompted me to learn more about Big Star, and I eventually acquired the band’s three fantastic albums: “#1 Record,” “Radio City” and “Third/Sister Lovers.” One of the Replacement’s best known songs, the raucous, jangly anthem “Alex Chilton,” is a love letter to Big Star’s enigmatic frontman, and includes heartfelt and enthusiastic lyrics such as “I never travel far/without a little Big Star” and “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes around.” Unfortunately, Paul Westerberg, The Replacements’ lead singer (and the man for whom my cat is named), does not appear in the documentary. But that’s one of the only complaints I can make about the film, titled “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
“Big Star” is an exhaustive, though not exhausting, account of the band’s tumultuous history, the members’ post-Big Star years, and the band’s unlikely reunion. In many ways, Big Star’s story is a tragic one, about a brilliant band that never achieved the fame its near-perfect pop craftmanship merited. By the time of the documentary’s completion, three of Big Star’s founding members were dead — Chilton of a heart attack in 2010, bassist Andy Hummel from cancer in 2010 and singer and guitarist Chris Bell in a car accident at the age of 27. Bell’s story is the saddest: I was more familiar with Chilton’s musical impact and legacy, but Bell’s contributions to Big Star are just as significant, if not more so, and his solo work, which is featured in the film, came as something as a revelation. I might go home tonight and order his 1992 solo album, “I Am the Cosmos.”
Structure-wise, “Big Star” is a fairly typical rock documentary. There’s a lot of archival footage, interviews with musicians (Chilton gave some great interviews in the years leading up to his death) and music critics and some pretty great music. The film also contains some nice detours, such as a side trip to the eccentric home of music producer Jim Dickinson, and hilarious footage from a rock music writers’ convention. “Big Star” also functions as a nice primer of the Memphis music scene, and made me think that my next Southern vacation should incorporate a Memphis stop, so I can visit noteworthy places such as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
“Big Star” is so detailed that I wondered whether it would be a bit too insidery for someone like my friend Adam, who had never heard of the band before and was being exposed to their music for the first time. But he really liked the music, and purchased “#1 Record” and “Radio City” the very next day. Big Star’s music has a pop sensibility, but there are dark and melancholy undercurrents, and a tender wistfulness that makes the heart ache. My favorite Big Star song is “13,” which begins with the questions: “Won’t you let me walk you home from school?/Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?” and ends with something akin to resignation and sorrow: “Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?/Would you be an outlaw for my love?/If it’s so, well, let me know/If it’s ‘no,’ well, I can go/I won’t make you.” Much like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Big Star’s music got stranger as its members got older, and Adam was a bit perplexed by the strangeness of “Third/Sister Lovers,” which features oddly devastating songs such as “Holocaust.”
“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” is a documentary for fans, and it made me feel like digging out my Big Star CDs and listening to them. But if you’ve never heard the band, it’s likely to make you feel like seeking out Big Star’s music and playing it over and over again.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Magnolia Pictures has acquired the American rights to “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” and the film will be released later this year.
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