Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
by Donny Kutzbach
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
What writer-director Drew DeNicola and producer-director Olivia Mori have the task of presenting in Nothing Can Hurt Me is, in many ways, something of of a ghost story. Rising from the fertile Memphis, Tennessee music scene, Big Star had a short and ungratifying lifespan in the mid-1970s. But as decades passed the band’s blend of powered-up anglopop and sunshine-tempered melancholia haunted generations of musicians and fans…and in many cases the kind of musicians who went to make great records themselves and the kind of fans who would go on to write about them.
The other ghosts in the frame are Big Star’s principal members Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Their spectral presence help make this a tough story to tell. Bell’s tragic end came in an auto accident in 1978, when he was only 27 years old and still trying to figure out his life and musical path. With no interviews and scant film footage, virtually the only voice for the shy and complicated Bell is from those who knew and loved him and his music.
Chilton, a brilliant musician on many levels who rose to international stardom as a teen fronting the Box Tops in the 1960s, was at best cavalier about Big Star’s legacy; at times he could be dismissive and disdainful. He rarely granted interviews and in particular wasn’t fond of talking about Big Star, so much so that he refused to take part when this film was being planned. It was Chilton’s untimely passing in 2010 that helped draw the film toward its close, and fortunately Western New Yorker Bruce Eaton (author of the excellent Big Star-Radio City from the 33 1/3 Series) provided the filmmakers with some critical audio clips that help connect the dots and add Chilton’s rare perspective through the movie.
It’s key that original bassist Andy Hummel and producer/engineer/raconteur Jim Dickinson (who passed in 2009 and 2010, respectively) were interviewed for the film before their deaths. They are featured throughout adding rich detail and needed nuance. Also here are Ardent Studios chief John Fry, steadfast believer in the band, and the inimitable drummer Jody Stephens, the only person who survived with Chilton through every Big Star manifestation.
The meat of the film centers on the formation of the band, the recording of the albums #1 Record and Radio City and their subsequent commercial failure, and the exit of Bell and later Hummel. The masterful “lost” album Third/Sister Lovers perhaps gets a bit less space and time than it deserves here: A work both stripped and lush, dark and toxicological, it’s like a mysterious Rosetta Stone from the other Memphis that went unreleased for 15 years.Yet maybe the shroud of enigma can never fully be pulled from it.
For all the hurdles that Nothing Can Hurt Me must leap in cogently telling the story of a band with all too little to document, it succeeds. In the end, it’s the enduring potency of Big Star’s music and the passion for it that fuels the film. While it certainly helps to already be indoctrinated in the cult of Big Star, the filmmakers have crafted enough of a fascinating narrative that it’s not central to its success. There is a lot of story within the story and DeNicola and Mori easily take each bit of the great southern gothic touches already ensconced not too far below the surface in the Big Star saga—including Chilton’s tempestuous nature, Bell’s inner turmoils, and the relationship sprawl and decadence of Third/Sister Lovers—and build them up. And while it’s a kick to see Cheap Trick or members of REM rhapsodizing about Big Star or performing the songs, the magic moments are in the passionate tales of artists like producer/Let’s Active frontman Mitch Easter’s pilgrimage to trace the band and its members in Memphis, or that of the dBs’ Chris Stamey, who moved to New York City, fell into Chilton orbit, and ended up releasing Bell’s gorgeous “I Am the Cosmos” as a 45 on his short-lived imprint.
Ultimately, though, the spine-tingling moments come when watching the needle drop on an old spinning Ardent label and hearing those opening chords of “Thirteen” or “September Gurls.” Nothing Can Hurt Me is more than just a Big Star doc. In a greater way, it serves as a love letter to music fans—of Big Star or otherwise—reminding us of that rare feeling that songs can evoke. You might really like the movie but you will always really, really love the records.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me will be screened on Tuesday, August 20 at 7pm at Squeaky Wheel (712 Main Street). A Q&A with Bernie Kugel (publisher of the original Big Star fanzine from 1977) and Bruce Eaton (author Big Star-Radio City 33 1/3) immediately follows.
Watch the trailer for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
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