Aug. 22--It would seem safe to say that when Big Star played its historic reunion show on Oct. 29, 1994, at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street, none of the 800-plus eager fans in attendance was thinking very far into the band's future.
Safe, but not accurate. A forward-thinking group of artists and friends mobilized quickly to record the 71-minute show for a posterity that, 20 years down the line, has proved kinder to Big Star than even the Memphis power-pop band's most ardent (pun intended) admirers might have hoped.
Big Star's leader, the wary Alex Chilton, was famously averse to being filmed, but he acquiesced when his longtime buddy and former so-called bodyguard, Danny Graflund, asked for permission to shoot the New Daisy show.
"I hadn't talked to Alex in a long time," said Graflund, 71. "He said, 'Why do you want to do this?,' and I said, 'Because it needs to be done, that's why.' I think he knew that I meant it, and he said yes."
The result is "Big Star: Live in Memphis," a very recently completed concert film by Graflund and Memphis filmmakers Robert Gordon and David Leonard that will have its public debut at 8:20 p.m. Saturday in a free screening at the Levitt Shell. The trio will introduce the film and briefly discuss its significance.
Conceived by Graflund, coordinated onsite by Gordon and edited -- one might say constructed -- by Leonard over the past 18 months from footage unseen for almost two decades, "Big Star: Live in Memphis" shows a band that is fresh and loose yet hitting every mark as it tears through close to 20 songs and fragments, including such Big Star classics as "In the Street" and "Don't Lie to Me," plus a few select covers. The knifelike Chilton -- wearing pale jeans, a cream suede coat and a crooked smile -- is particularly playful and energized, knocking out spiky guitar solos and occasionally bobbing his head like a bird. He seems to be enjoying himself, yet -- in a quintessential Chilton moment -- he can't resist augmenting the joyful, generous chorus of "Thank You Friends" with a shout-out to "every last one of you (expletive) creeps," an acid tribute to an unworthy industry and perhaps world. Stephens, 60, Big Star's original drummer, who takes lead vocals for the songs "Way Out West" and "For You" (a Stephens composition that is among the most beautiful numbers in the Big Star canon), said that on the night of the New Daisy concert, he was "both nervous and incredibly excited. It's Memphis -- there are a lot of great players here. Then you step out on stage and see a lot of friendly faces, and you have a great time."
According to music critic Larry Nager's review of the concert in The Commercial Appeal, Big Star played "to a crowd of 860, just 40 short of a sellout. It was the largest audience Big Star has ever drawn in Memphis."
The "Big Star: Live in Memphis" screening marks the end of the third successful "Concert Film Series" at the Shell, a summer season of rock-and-roll cinema coordinated by Indie Memphis, the arts organization that programs the Indie Memphis Film Festival and other events.
Typically, concert films in the series have been classics from the past -- "Rockshow" with Paul McCartney & Wings, for example, or "Jimi Plays Monterey" -- or more recent favorites, such as "Radiohead: Live in Prague."
"Big Star: Live in Memphis" is different: a never-before-seen slice of Memphis music history that could function as a feature-length complement to the acclaimed documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," still playing in theaters across America.
The films are cappers of a sort to the many years of Big Star activity that followed the 1994 New Daisy show, including concerts, record reissues, a tribute album and a four-CD box set. What had been missing was a full-length Big Star concert film -- a void that seemed likely never to be filled when Chilton died from a heart attack on March 17, 2010, at his New Orleans home. (Original bassist Andy Hummel, who did not participate in the band's reunions, died four months after Chilton at his home near Fort Worth, Texas, after a long battle with cancer; he also was 59. Big Star's original co-founder, Chris Bell, died in a 1978 car wreck in Memphis at 27.)
In the 1970s, Big Star recorded three classic albums at Ardent Studios here that merged British Invasion songcraft with Memphis authenticity and eccentricity. The albums didn't make a ripple on the sales charts, but years later hit impressionable listeners like a tidal wave, inspiring future generations of influential musicians.
Joined by Big Star acolytes Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, Chilton and Stephens -- today the lone survivor of the band's original lineup -- first reunited as Big Star for a show in 1993 at the University of Missouri. A few European dates followed, Stephens said, before the New Daisy show. Two nights later, the band appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," signaling that Big Star was back, and reaching a larger audience then ever before.
Graflund's lifelong friend, the late Jim Dickinson, introduced Graflund to Chilton in about 1974, when Dickinson was producing the third Big Star album. Paid $20 a day for his ostensible bodyguard duties, Graflund became Chilton's running buddy. "We laughed, we partied, we listened to a lot of music together, we got kicked out of Godfather's (an Overton Square club) when we went to hear Jerry Lee Lewis. ... Basically, Alex was being a bad boy, and I was supposed to get him to work (the studio) on time."
Even so, Graflund hadn't seen Chilton for many years when he approached him about filming the New Daisy show.
Graflund had only three days to turn Chilton's agreement into reality. He contacted Memphis filmmaker and author Robert Gordon, who arranged for the use of four Betacam SP video cameras. Two handheld cameras were operated onstage by Geo Holmes and Clay Elder, while the other two were fixed on tripods, one on the main floor of the venue and the other in the balcony. There was no monitor, and no director cutting the footage live as it was captured.
Graflund and Gordon were unable to interest any music or DVD labels in the film, so the Beta tapes and one Digital Audio Tape of the night were stored away at Graflund's house and more or less forgotten until Leonard, 51, who is working on a Chilton documentary, became interested in the material. He agreed to take a stab at turning the footage into a bona fide concert documentary in exchange for using clips from the show for his own movie.
The result may be not only the only full Big Star concert on film but even the only complete professionally shot Chilton concert available, Leonard said.
Said Graflund: "We're just glad the tapes hadn't melted."
'Big Star: Live in Memphis'
The movie, a part of the Indie Memphis Concert Film Series, will be shown at 8:20 p.m. (dusk) Saturday at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park. Admission is free. The movie will be introduced by filmmakers Danny Graflund, Robert Gordon and David Leonard, and preceded by Alex Chilton music shorts.
(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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