For Power-Pop Fans, The Woeful Ballad Of 'Big Star'

Jul 3, 2013
Originally published on July 3, 2013 9:23 am

In the early 1970s, the Memphis band Big Star played Beatles-esque pop-rock whose exuberance was laced with melancholy. That the ruefulness was earned becomes poignantly clear over the course of the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.

Big Star was a cult band, and this is likely to be a cult film; viewers who don't already know the music, or aren't immediately taken by the opening strains of "O My Soul," may soon tune out. But the story that writer-director Drew DeNicola and producer-director Olivia Mori reconstruct has the power to move even those who prefer Mozart or Lil Wayne.

In some respects, this is a typical rock cautionary tale, with the requisite drug and alcohol abuse, record-company failings, untimely death and a fair portion of madness. But other aspects of the saga are as unusual and extraordinary as the band's best songs.

Big Star was incubated in the Memphis school where singer-guitarist Chris Bell met bassist Andy Hummel. They added drummer Jody Stephens and then — remarkably and pivotally — singer-guitarist Alex Chilton.

Though Chilton was of an age with the other three, he was already a veteran. He'd dropped out of high school at 14 to become the lead singer of The Box Tops, whose "The Letter" topped the charts in 1967.

One of Big Star's enduring mysteries is that the band's auteur was Bell, who quit after the first album. With The Box Tops, the adolescent Chilton sang like a gravel-voiced soul man. But with Big Star, he adopted Bell's high tenor, which he stuck with even after the other singer-songwriter departed in rage and confusion.

As a trio, Big Star made another album in the mode of its debut, but with a bit more robust sound. Both #1 Record and Radio City got great reviews but sold poorly, in part because of distribution failures.

Then Chilton and Stephens began a third album with a mixed bag of collaborators, notably pianist-producer Jim Dickinson, who also worked with The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. The project, known as Third or Sister Lovers, was to prove massively influential, but it wasn't even released until four years after its recording, in 1978. (Its "Big Black Car" includes the line, "Nothing can hurt me.")

Big Star's following grew over the years, and many of its high-profile fans appear in this movie, along with interesting alternative versions of several songs. Oddly, the group did reach a large, if probably unaware, audience when its "In the Street" became the theme song for That '70s Show.

Chilton went on to a perversely eccentric solo career before dying of a heart attack in 2010. He ultimately started participating in Big Star reunions, but in interviews was often dismissive of the band. Perhaps as a result, the filmmakers haven't uncovered many clips where he has much useful to say about their subject.

Dickinson and Hummel — who died in 2009 and 2010, respectively — were interviewed for the movie, as was Stephens. They're joined by many of Big Star's collaborators, including engineers, businessmen and prominent photographer William Eggleston. He was a pal of Chilton's mother who, according to Dickinson, gave the kid peyote when he was 11 or 12.

But Big Star was essentially Chris Bell's band, and emotionally, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is Bell's movie. Joining rock's dead-at-27 club via a 1978 car crash, he left behind a fine, then-unreleased album and two siblings who tell his story movingly. As they recount his final years, the sadness in Bell's songs comes to seem eerily prescient. (Recommended)

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