“I never travel far without a little Big Star.” – Alex Chilton, The Replacements
There is this moment at the end of the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, and it is perfect. The shot is a second long at most — probably less, now that I think about it — and it somehow encapsulates my fifteen-year admiration of a band that most people will never know or care about: John Fry, prolific audio engineer and record label founder, is hunched over the controls in Ardent Studios as he mixes a new cut of Big Star “September Gurls” for this documentary. He leans back in his seat a little, his arms crossed, and smiles. Cut to credits. It’s a smile that reaches back 40 years and outlines all of the joy and pain that came with his friendship with the members of Big Star. It’s the smile of someone who can’t shake off all of the sad memories attached to the Big Star story, and it’s the smile of someone still stunned by how good that song is. John Fry is integral to Big Star’s legend, a friend and peer and co-conspirator; I’m just a guy who liked their music. But it’s impossible for me not to say, “I get it.” I did my best not to tear up at that grin, and — as a quick glance around the theater proved — I wasn’t the only one.
Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012, directed by Olivia Mori and Drew DeNicola) attempts to compact the world of Big Star into two hours. The film (the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign) is quite good, especially when it comes to the je ne sais quoi that makes the influence of the band and its music so interesting.
If you’re not at all familiar with Big Star, here’s a summary. Big Star formed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1971 after four musicians got together: Chris Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass), Jody Stephens (drums), and former Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals). The band seemed destined to fail from the moment they started recording: they wanted to make melodic, Beatles-indebted rock during a decade that wanted nothing of the kind. They released #1 Record in 1972 to critical acclaim, but commercial silence, due to promotional and distribution mishaps from the band’s record label. Bell left the band, and the remaining trio recorded Radio City. Again, critics raved, yet sales were abysmal—even more so than with their debut. By the time the band got together to record their third album (titled Third or Sister Lovers, depending on who you ask), Big Star was down to just Chilton and Stephens. Record labels didn’t want to touch the slow, weird album, and it never saw a proper release until 1978…four years after the band broke up. At this point, the Big Star cult was growing — young Anglophiles all over the country started to get ahold of the band’s music, many of them journalists or burgeoning musicians. As the 1980s dawned, the band’s music would help serve as a blueprint for much of the power pop, new wave, and alternative rock (however you want to define that) that was to come down the road. Big Star’s songs and albums started showing up on “Best Of” lists left and right, even though the general public still had no clue who Big Star was.
Nothing Can Hurt Me fleshes out the band’s earlier history, infusing interviews from Big Star fans. The filmmakers interviewed dozens of people, and their love of the band radiates. We hear from musicians who loved and were influenced by Big Star (Cheap Trick, the Flaming Lips, and Teenage Fanclub, to name a few). We hear from producers and engineers who worked with, and then came to admire, the band. We hear from critics and journalists who, after hearing Big Star, decided it was their mission to proselytize on the band’s behalf. We hear from friends and family. And we hear from the band — mainly Stephens and Hummel, but also a few audio recordings from Chilton. Bell tragically died in an automotive accident in 1978, and Chilton’s death in 2010 motivated the filmmakers to start this project. Even more of a blow: Hummel passed away shortly after his segments were filmed. Much of the material here won’t be revelatory to Big Star fans, though it’s great to see much of the story told through anecdotes and experiences, especially since most of the folks interviewed have such a strong tie to Big Star’s music and what it meant in their life.
It’s hard for me to write this without thinking about my own Big Star story. I knew I was supposed to be a fan of Big Star before I ever heard their music. As I was getting into more esoteric music as a young teen, I kept seeing the band’s name. Bands and artists I admired, like R.E.M. and Matthew Sweet, spoke reverently of them in interviews. Big Star was named-dropped constantly in a book on the history of rock music that I permanently borrowed from a friend in high school (sorry I still have your book, Gruber). My takeaway from all of this exposure: Big Star was unjustly ignored during the band’s short life in the 1970s. By the time I finally heard Big Star’s music when I was 16 (30-second clips of “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car” in a listening booth at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of all places), I had bought the hype. Those were 30 magic seconds, and I needed more. I quickly ordered the two-for CD combo of #1 Record and Radio City and immersed myself in its sonic wash forthe next few years.
Is Big Star the best band of all time? Probably not. Are they even my favorite band? No. But no other band has come close to putting me in this sort of emotional headlock, even when I recognize the shortcomings in their music. #1 Record, as the documentary acknowledges, is an oddly sequenced album that suffers a bit from Bell’s good-but-not-great rock tunes. Third/Sister Lovers is basically a Chilton solo album that’s as unlistenable and chaotic as it is genius. Radio City, though, is pretty much the perfect album: ragged, insanely catchy and desperately heartbreaking. It’s the template for every sad-sack power pop album that’s been released since, which is understandable considering how good it is. And even though Bell was out of the band by the time of its recording, Radio City still bears his songwriting stamp on a handful of songs. There are better albums and artists out there, but those bands and their music wouldn’t exist without Big Star.
In fact, Bell’s ghost looms the largest over the Big Star story. While Chilton often gets singled out as Big Star personified, Bell was the initial agitator for the creation of the band. His dreams of making a hugely successful British-invasion-by-way-of-Memphis act left some sort of psychic imprint on the band, even after his departure from the group. I think Nothing Can Hurt Me also handles Bell’s post-Big Star life graciously. After his stormy exit, Bell moved to Europe and tried to put his life together. The documentary interviews his brother and sister, who emotionally recall Bell trying to figure out his drug abuse, sexual inclinations, and newfound Christian beliefs. After moving back to Memphis, Bell cut an album’s worth of material (including “I am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister,” both heartbreakingly good tunes that tower over Bell’s material on #1 Record). It’s weird: his chug-a-lug guitar workouts on Big Star’s debut are some of my least favorite moments in the band’s catalog, but I also realize how vital he was to the mix, and the documentary accurately summarized how powerful Bell’s vision was for the band. There would be no Big Star without Chris Bell.
If Nothing Can Hurt Me falters, it’s how fast it skips over Big Star 2.0. Chilton and Stephens’ reformation of the band in the early ‘90s (with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies in tow). The quartet, which played sporadic gigs, eventually released a fourth Big Star album, In Space, in 2005. I think many fans dismiss the album outright as not really being a Big Star album, but a glorified Chilton solo album. Still, In Space has a handful of wonderful tunes, and deserves more than the three seconds the film devotes to showing the album cover. Stringfellow and Auer at least show up a bit later in the film, gushing about how much the band meant to them.
Let’s go back to John Fry’s smile. I was trying not to lose it after that final shot. It brought back a bunch of memories: checking the post-Hurricane Katrina news with dread, because Alex Chilton was among the missing in NOLA; reading about — and eventually bawling over — Chilton’s sudden death, just days before a performance at SXSW; the countless times I hit “back” on my CD or MP3 player to hear a Big Star song again; and the first time I heard the beautiful, chiming single-coil guitar tones on “September Gurls.” Thing is, everytime I hear that song is like the first time. This is a band that always hits me in the heart, and I really can’t explain why. Maybe that’s why I think Nothing Can Hurt Me really works—it manages to capture that feeling and put it on the big screen.
Paul Westerberg sang, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” And I don’t—my iPod always has some Big Star on it, in case I need it. And I know I’ll always need it.