July 12--The subtitle of "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," a definitive documentary about the once-obscure Memphis pop-rock band that crafted three of the most influential albums of the 1970s, is a borrowed lyric from "Big Black Car," a melancholy composition by Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton.
The line's sad, false bravado -- followed a moment later by the less reassuring "Nothing can touch me" -- makes an ironic slogan for musicians whose creative formula was "pain transformed into beauty," in the words of Memphis punk-rock survivor and percussionist-raconteur Ross Johnson.
Johnson, who played with Chilton in the post-Big Star "anti-musical environment" of Tav Falco's Panther Burns, is one of numerous Big Star admirers, collaborators and literal and extended family members who appear in this sprawling, inspiring and moving feature, a labor of love by Brooklyn filmmakers whose Big Star obsession is shared by Lenny Kaye, Matthew Sweet, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Paul Westerberg of the Replacements and John Doe of X, to name just a few of the musicians who participate in the movie.
In an Austin radio interview from 1978 that is among the documentary's many archival treasures, Chilton describes Big Star as "a band I used to play with that changed a lot of people's heads." He was right. Referring to the group's brief initial incarnation and influential afterlife, British rocker Robyn Hitchcock describes Big Star's music as being like "a letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985 ... like something that got lost in the mail."
Written and directed by Drew DeNicola, "co-directed" and produced by Olivia Mori and produced and "originated" by Danielle McCarthy (to quote the movie's diplomatically negotiated credits), "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" is a must-see for Memphis residents and music aficionados in particular, even -- or perhaps especially? -- for those unacquainted with the Big Star story or the eccentric, even decadent artistic-cultural demimonde that gives it context.
Years in the making, the film chronicles the origins of the band (the original members were leaders Chilton and Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens); its immediate critical success and commercial failure; and the impact of this experience on its members. The story necessarily incorporates the histories of the legendary soul label Stax and then-fledgling Ardent Studios, where the Big Star sessions were recorded; key interview subjects include relatively unsung genius engineer/producer John Fry, Ardent's founder, and much-sung genius producer Jim Dickinson, who worked on Chilton's experimental later sessions. The recent deaths of Chilton, Dickinson, Hummel and other key figures limn the story in sadness, even as the overall vibe is hopeful, as Big Star's music is rediscovered and celebrated.
The movie revisits such significant but semi-forgotten episodes as the 1973 Rock Writers of the World convention in Memphis; engineered by promoter John King, the event planted the seeds of the Big Star cult into the fertile minds of such rock-and-roll tastemakers as Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches and Cameron Crowe. More important, the documentary is particularly invaluable in giving just due to Chris Bell, who left the band after the first album, essentially ceding his once- beloved Big Star to the prickly Chilton, who eventually abandoned British Invasion popcraft to be a punk inspiration and acerbic symbol of anti-careerist integrity. Described by Dickinson as being "in every way a tragic figure," the emotionally fragile Bell was killed at 27 in a 1978 car crash, after failing to generate much interest in his post-Big Star work; now revered by fans around the world, Bell was working at a Danver's restaurant when young North Carolina musicians Mitch Easter and Will Ribgy tracked him down during a pilgrimage to Memphis, not long before his death.
Many documentaries and perhaps music documentaries in particular impose a contrived and even dubious narrative onto their material, to ape the "suspense" of a fiction film; this year's Oscar-winning "Searching for Sugar Man," for example, diluted the fascinating story of underappreciated singer-songwriter Rodriguez by connecting it to the filmmakers' personal quest to contact their subject. "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," in contrast, meets the challenge of its diffuse scope to be a model of coherent and purposeful storytelling; in the manner of Martin Scorsese's Dylan and George Harrison films, it functions as history, biography and critical appreciation. If nothing else, it's a reminder that it's no exaggeration to say the music on Big Star's three albums of the 1970s is truly timeless -- as fresh and relevant and "funny, sad and frightening" (to quote a contemporary review) as any music of the rock era, and that includes the Beatles.
"Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" is on two screens at the Malco Studio on the Square. Drummer Jody Stephens, the only surviving member of the band's original lineup, will attend and answer questions from the audience after the 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. screenings on Friday, opening night.
(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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