News Column

Star crossed

September 6, 2013


Sept. 06--Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, rockumentary, rated PG-13, The Screen, 2.5 chiles

Who doesn't know Big Star? The answer -- you can put your hands down now -- depends on whether you listened to Top 40 or underground radio 40-some years ago, whether you religiously read Rolling Stone between 1972 and 1974, and whether you'd be turned off (in the parlance of the day) to a band and album name that smacked of arrogance and not-so-foregone conclusion. Big Star wasn't a band that briefly burned bright before fizzling out. It fizzled from the beginning -- not musically but on the business end, promotionally and in distribution, its short life squelched in the naive days when we believed that music conquered everything and that the benevolent record companies who brought us the Stones, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane couldn't possibly be inefficient, let alone evil. How times have changed.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is about a good enough band that came out of Memphis in the early 1970s to much critical acclaim and little public acceptance. The movie pokes around inside the band's predictable arc as it comes together and then crashes hard on drink, ego, troubled-artist psychology, and the lack of commercial success. Big Star -- the name seems ironic, in that there was nothing big about them in terms of popularity for many years -- has a cult following today mostly because of what founding member Alex Chilton, who died in 2010, did before and after the band's existence. In a 1978 radio broadcast, Chilton corrects the interviewer when he suggests the band's demise was tied to the recording in 1974 of its third album, Third (aka Sister Lovers): "We actually broke up after the first album," he says.

Chilton was still in high school when he recorded the chart-topping single "The Letter" with The Box Tops, a group of Memphis studio musicians. His rough, soulful voice made more than a few of the song's fans believe that Chilton was an older African American singer rather than a baby-faced white teen. (One of the film's funniest moments is footage from a televised Box Tops performance with Chilton and the others showing obvious disregard for the craft of lip syncing.) His post-Big Star career was a series of stylistic jumps, from sensitive singer-songwriter to proto-punk rebel, that captured an audience eager to see musical categories smashed. The movie traces the various aspects of Chilton's career as deeply as it documents Big Star's brief life.

The McCartney to Chilton's Lennon is Chris Bell, portrayed as a troubled musical genius ... la Brian Wilson who battled Chilton over the band's direction. Bell was gone from the group before Third/Sister Lovers, and the movie doesn't draw out the artistic clash between these two musicians, instead sticking to their personal stories. Bell's solo recording I Am the Cosmos, duly documented here, assured his cult status. He died in a car crash in 1978.

With drummer Jody Stephens the only surviving member of the band (bassist Andy Hummel died of cancer in 2010), the Big Star story is mostly left to those around the band. Their recollections make Nothing Can Hurt Me a film about more than just the band. It gives glimpses into the Memphis pop-music scene of the mid- and late 1960s and early '70s, a place where Elvis battled the Beatles for Top 40 superiority, and any kid with a guitar and a friend who played drums started a garage band. It is in large part the story of Ardent Recordings, started by a group of ambitious kids who bought Stax's used recording equipment when the legendary and ill-fated soul label upgraded its technology. In turn, Stax asked Ardent to help with its overflow. Its engineers immediately went from recording garage bands to sessions with Booker T. and the M.G.s, the Staple Singers, and Isaac Hayes. When Stax mastermind Al Bell decided he needed a rock imprint, he chose Ardent. Big Star was the label's first band. The rest, to paraphrase, is forgotten history.

Big Star's name, despite its implications (and the seemingly smug chart assumptions of the band's first album, titled #1 Record), came from desperate need and a stoned glance across the street, to where the Memphis grocery-store chain Big Star had one of its locations. Recording the album seems to have been the easy part, and the film, with little visual record of the event, doesn't dwell on it. It does dwell on the great critical reception the recording garnered and how it was subsequently ignored across the country -- and especially in the band's hometown. Ardent may have been a great place to record an album, but the company and the people around Big Star had no idea of how to get the record played on radio or stocked in stores. When Stax made a distribution deal with Columbia Records (sealed with nothing more than a handshake between Al Bell and a CBS record exec), everything seemed destined to come up rosy sales figures. But Big Star, a white rock band on a subsidiary of a soul label, got little help. By then, Chris Bell was already out of the band. The group, such as it was, re-formed in 1993 for concert tours after Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and others touted its influence. Around the same time, Third/Sister Lovers was finally released to general distribution. At the time of its recording, only a handful of promotional copies were made, followed a few years later by a European issue.

Much of the documentation here comes in the form of photos and audio clips buttressed by recent interviews. While the film makes many claims for the brilliance of the recordings, the reasons for that are little discussed, and we're given few chances to decide for ourselves. The music comes in bits and pieces, a collage that never quite comes together. These bits are mostly unidentified, making Nothing Can Hurt Me something of an insider's tale for those who can immediately recognize a riff or a single line from some lyric. Listening to Big Star today suggests the music was good but not quite as great as the film's interviewees claim. It was a band in the wrong place at the wrong time. Memphis, fixated on Elvis and soul music, had no place for a rock band. And the Big Star sound, an amalgam of the Byrds and the Beatles (especially Abbey Road-period Beatles) was already dated in an era when the Eagles and the Allman Brothers were on the rise and groups such as Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were hijacking the electronic side of prog rock. Still, by the end of the movie, when we hear the music at length, there is a sense that, if given the chance, these guys could have come up with something big.


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