July 26--Rock fans are proud of their genre's heritage. Bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones are standard-bearers, bringing up memories of concerts, power chords and years passed.
Few, however, can recall Memphis-based Big Star, whose music may be most recognizable to today's youth thanks to the group's song "In the Street" -- the theme song to "That '70s Show."
Famous for not being famous is Big Star's unofficial mantra, but directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori's documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" artfully shines light on a group that long after its breakup in 1974 and three years after its 17-year reunion ended in 2010, has never quite gotten the credit it deserved.
"We broke up after the first album," says Big Star's frontman Alex Chilton with a laugh during a radio interview with KUT Radio in Austin, Texas, in 1978. Soon, the audience is introduced to the lighthearted guitar riffs of the band and its saddening story.
"Some of you probably weren't really too much into rock 'n' roll when Big Star was here in Memphis in '72-'73, but they have reached a cult status," says the host of 103 WZXI Memphis as present-day shots of the city cover the screen and the band's track "O My Soul" drifts along in the background.
Unsurprisingly, praise is heaped upon the band by music critics and musicians (Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip; Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo; Kliph Scurlock and Steven Drozd of The Flaming Lips) as the viewer is introduced to Big Star's turbulent history.
It's one that features three albums, including the critically acclaimed "#1 Record," and solo work by Chilton, formerly of The Box Tops, and Big Star's now-deceased founder, fellow guitarist and singer/songwriter Chris Bell.
"There's a sadness to it because those are some of the best records made in that decade, and they just didn't get heard," said R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills.
But the story behind Big Star's too-quiet success and poor sales is more than just the fault of its on-and-off record label, the legendary Stax Records, which failed to improve the band's distribution efforts. It's also a product of the era, its drug culture and the all-too-typical drama that has forced thousands of bands the world over to disassemble.
"Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" is rich with vintage stills of the band's members -- decked out in the fashion of the '60s and '70s; the band's favorite recording studio, Ardent Studios; the city of Memphis, a slice of Americana; and an often-glorified scene made prominent by bands such as The Beatles that disappeared long ago, leaving an imprint on the music of every generation since. As the documentary points out, perhaps that scene was simply too much for the budding Memphis band.
By its end, the documentary leaves the viewer saddened in a nostalgic sort of way -- even to those, including this reviewer, who weren't alive during the heyday of bell-bottoms. It's a well-made music-lovers' film and one that will doubtless increase the YouTube play count of Big Star songs such as "Ballad of El Goodo" and "Feel."
Plays today through Sunday at Hollywood Theater, Dormont.
Andrew Gretchko: email@example.com or on Twitter: @Andrew_Gretchko.
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