The three albums Big Star cut in the early '70s at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee were resounding commercial failures, but the rock group's output nonetheless infiltrated independent music over the next two decades. Big Star albums were traded like coveted club memberships between discerning musicians, including the members of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet, and countless others. By the mid-'80s, such disparate groups as Primal Scream and the Replacements had publicly extolled the lost Memphis group's genius.
Over the last 10 years, exhaustive archival campaigns and the death of bandleader Alex Chilton boosted Big Star's profile to its proper place as a group of inimitable and indelible songwriters. So it's appropriate that Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the definitive documentary on Big Star's trudge back from obscurity, begins with English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock declaring that "Big Star is like a letter posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985." His one-liner at once alludes to the band's tragic history and anticipates the artful way Nothing Can Hurt Me -- which opens at the Roxie Theater tonight -- shows how a once-lost band eventually found bittersweet vindication.
Big Star's story is as much about the music industry as the stormy artistic temperaments of leaders Chris Bell and Chilton, and Nothing Can Hurt Me correspondingly begins with the Rock Writers of the World conference in Memphis 1973. Critical luminaries Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Cameron Crowe, and over 100 others attend. Big Star is booked to entertain. As several interviewees remember, the critics danced -- "nothing short of a miracle," according to critic Billy Altman. But Big Star never had a problem garnering critical acclaim. Rather, consumers in the '70s privy to the glowing reviews simply couldn't buy Big Star records when they wanted, due to the band's distribution problems.
The band's failure to chart well in the early '70s illustrates the music industry's labyrinthine nature at the time. The engines of production and marketing served stars very well, but often left meticulously crafted pop like Big Star's floundering somewhere far from the light of day, let alone the Top 40. The volatile songwriting partnership of Chilton and Bell yielded the ironically titled debut #1 Record, which relied on distribution by Memphis soul institution Stax. But at first, Stax's channels couldn't penetrate the pop market. Then, the label went bankrupt just in time for Big Star's sophomore effort.
Nothing Can Hurt Me presents a wealth of archival photographs and video and radio clips alongside interviews with key employees at Ardent Records, members of the band, artistic peers, family members, and contemporary musicians who discovered the group decades later. Thoughtful editing prefaces contemporary interviews with vintage photos of the person speaking, or a montage of relevant images, and quick cuts between speakers briskly propels the narrative. In a refreshing departure from the gratuitous star-parading of many music documentaries, the most famous interviewees of dubious relevance to the Big Star story appear only long enough to declare some quotable sentiment.
Principal songwriter Bell left Big Star after its first album. The stories of his power struggles with Chilton are notorious, as are the conditions of his depression and conversion to Christianity, both of which run throughout on his solo album, I Am the Cosmos. Similarly, Chilton's drug use, obtuseness, and progressively strange recordings are sensationalized in other accounts of Big Star's story, but Nothing Can Hurt Me tastefully alludes to specific episodes or lets firsthand witnesses relate the past. A vintage interview portrays Chilton's morose tendencies as his miserablist dirge "Kangaroo" fades in, but the film lets viewers connect the songwriter's instability to his music themselves. There's no heavy-handed romanticizing.
During the recording of Big Star's third and final album, Bell is absent, drunk and floundering in Europe. Chilton begins work on the dark and confounding 3rd with eccentric producer and musician Jim Dickinson. The film's most original insight is the artistic kinship between Dickinson, Chilton, and famed Southern photographer William Eggleston, whose photo adorns the cover of Big Star's Radio City. Poorly adjusted, and reveling in the terror of everyday Southern life, where horror is beauty and vice versa, the film suggests that all three sought to convey the psychic damage of life in the beleaguered South. As Dickinson's widow explains with singular Southern idiosyncrasy, "[Dickinson] succeeded in the space between the notes most on Big Star's 3rd." Shortly after, a video montage of interviewees searching to describe Chilton's work all conclude that it's rooted in "pain," giving viewers the bond between him, Eggleston and Dickinson.
The series of famous contemporary musicians expressing a love of Big Star flash onscreen quickly at the film's beginning and end, illustrating the group's unlikely reach: A commercial flop and industry casualty whose music still somehow refracted around the globe, rearing its influence in quiet murmurs that grew into a choir of devotees. At its climax, the film shows Rep. Steve Cohen eulogizing Alex Chilton on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2010.
Eggleston's interview segment follows a shot of him improvising a dissonant piece on the piano that wouldn't be out of place on a Chilton record. The shot, lit and seemingly filtered to resemble the color saturation of an Eggleston photograph, is chilling and beautiful -- the sort of flourish propelling Nothing Can Hurt Me into a class of its own.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me runs Friday, July 19, through Thursday, July 25, at the Roxie Theater. Times and prices vary.