In 1973, Big Star had their most significant coming out at a rowdy convention for rock writers (Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe were among the attendees). A very apt event since the Memphis power poppers were always best loved by the critics. In a time when rock was all about big stadium bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Big Star’s concise, fresh-faced, jangly pop was at odds with popular tastes but a total balm to the professional music listeners chaffing beneath all the proggy bombast. Today it seems amazing that music so instantly accessible and timeless could have ever been unfashionable, but it’s at least one explanation for why Big Star never got to be the big stars they deserved to be.
Getting to the bottom of this absurdity is just one item on directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s agenda. Their 2012 documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me addresses the historic, business, and personal reasons Big Star were relegated to the cult heap, but also makes much time to pore over the makings of their three albums, the personal problems and immense talents of founding member Chris Bell, Alex Chilton’s aversions to popularity, Bell and Chilton’s post-Big Star careers, their deaths, and their band’s powerful legacy, as well as the Memphis music scene and the history of Ardent Records. We get to see Alex mucking around as a background guitarist with an “anti-music” group called Tav Falco’s Panther Burns on local TV for a host who has no time for their shenanigans. We get to hear from the surviving band members and a parade of major musicians (Cheap Trick, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Robyn Hitchcock, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, etc.) paying homage to Big Star in words and music. However, the film’s most important achievement is the way it emphasizes Bell’s importance. Since Bell was only around for the first album, and since Chilton already had a prominent music career with The Box Tops before joining Big Star, Chilton gets most of the credit for his band’s greatness. But Chris Bell’s role in putting together the band and their greatest album, #1 Record, cannot be overestimated, and now we have no excuse for not knowing that. Realizing this makes those headlines reading “Son of Restaurateur Killed in Car Wreck” that followed his death all the more poignant and infuriating.
Magnolia’s new Blu-ray expands nearly two hours of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me to a solid three with bonus short features focusing specifically on Bell and Chilton, as well as a trip to the studio to listen to master tapes of #1 Record and Radio City, and shorter discussions of Big Star’s zeal for Hi-Watt amps, how The Doobie Brothers helped stumble their success, their gig at Max’s Kansas City, and Alex’s insistence on gobbling fried mushrooms on stage when he should have been singing, which sums up how he felt about achieving rock stardom as well as anything else. Any of these deleted scenes could have found a place in the larger movie and add much additional insight to an already insightful film
Get Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me at Amazon.com here: