The new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opens with a rare clip of a 1978 radio interview with Alex Chilton on KUT in Austin. He’s in the studio playing “Rock Hard” off his then just-released solo album, Like Flies on Sherbert.
When the performance ends, the DJ asks, “What’s the story behind the third album? There was a lot of turmoil involved in recording the third album. It that what caused the breakup?”
“Shit, no,” Chilton replies. “We broke up after the first album.” He then asks the DJ to play something from Big Star. “Now we’re going to talk about a band I used to play with that changed a lot of people’s heads.”
It’s a great clip, and not just because it’s something that even the most hardcore fans of Big Star and Chilton will have never heard. It’s just Chilton being Chilton, in his sweet, soft Southern drawl, but the words are truer than he ever could have imagined: Big Star did change a lot of people’s heads. (Mine included.) And if there’s any justice in the world, Nothing Can Hurt Me will only help that number grow.
The documentary, released earlier this summer in select cities by Magnolia Pictures, is the first directed by Drew DeNicola, a video editor at Vice. It’s a sweeping look at the history and outsized influence of the Memphis band and its members—Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens.
If you’ve never listened to Big Star, you might know their song “In the Street” (the opening theme to That ’70s Show, although that version is sung by Cheap Trick), or the classic “September Gurls,” the quintessential gem of power pop (covered by the Bangles in 1985). If you’ve never heard either of those songs, you’ve definitely heard Chilton’s voice—he was, at 15, the singer on a 1967 number-one hit, the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”
The Box Tops were a sour experience for Chilton, and his mixed feelings about fame and recognition are scattered in lyrics throughout the Big Star oeuvre. The band is often thought of as his, yet, as the documentary makes clear, it’s Bell who actually had the idea for the group, roping in Hummel, Stephens, and, finally, Chilton.
Their first album, 1972’s #1 Record, was recorded on nights and weekends at Ardent Studios—Bell had been fooling around there since he was a teenager and had a key. Ardent had a new partnership for distribution with Stax, and there were high hopes for the record.
Despite critical praise, sales never took off. Bell had a nervous breakdown, left the band, and fled to Europe. After some time off, Chilton decided to reform the band and recorded 1974’s Radio City. Stax had just signed a distribution deal with CBS Records, so Ardent sent Big Star on promotional tours to New York and L.A. But CBS fired its president, Clive Davis, for corporate malfeasance, the distribution deal broke down, and Stax filed for bankruptcy. Most of copies of Radio City never made it out of the warehouse.
Hummel left the band around this time, but Chilton and Stephens returned to the studio with legendary producer Jim Dickinson in late 1974 to record what would be the band’s masterpiece, the weird, beautiful, haunting, and heartbreaking Third/Sister Lovers. No one was interested in the promotional copies, the band broke up for good, and the album never saw official release until 1978 (and was never really in wide release until Rykodisc issued the album in 1992).
So that was Big Star—a band that was together for about three years and released three albums that didn’t sell very many copies and somehow went on to be one of the most influential bands of all time. Nothing Can Hurt Me interviews musician after musician to make this point clear—Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip, Matthew Sweet, the Flaming Lips, Robyn Hitchcock, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Chris Stamey of the dB’s, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo—the list goes on (probably for too long).
Thankfully, the documentary isn’t just interested in the more successful bands who love Big Star or the drama surrounding the band’s lack of initial success. The movie, deservedly, spends a lot of time on Bell, whose influence on Big Star is woefully discredited, and whose solo album, I Am the Cosmos, is criminally unheard. (The music was recorded shortly before Bell’s tragic death in 1978, but it was not put out as an album until 1992.)
DeNicola interviews Bell’s family, Ardent producers and employees, friends of the band in Memphis, and even renowned photographer William Eggleston, who was friends with the band at the time.
It’s true that one can’t help but what wonder what the documentary would have been like if Chilton had consented to any interviews before his untimely death in March 2010, or if Dickinson hadn’t died in 2009—there’s just one interview with him, although there’s more with his wife and his sons Luther and Cody, of North Mississippi Allstars fame.
But DeNicola did get interviews with Hummel before he died later in 2010, and, as the credits make clear, three other interviewees also died after being filmed. It feels important that he got all of this on tape before it was too late, so who am I to complain about the lack of an interview with Lesa or Holliday Alredge, the two sisters Chilton and Stephens were dating in 1974 and important muses for Third/Sister Lovers?
Nothing Can Hurt Me is essential viewing if you’re a Big Star fan, if only to see Chilton playing a local Memphis television show with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. (“That may be the worst sound I’ve ever heard come out on television,” the presenter says, with a priceless look on her face.) If you aren’t a fan, the film might make you one. Me—well, it brought me to tears. And I’m not the only person I know who’s had that reaction.
The movie is available OnDemand and for rental via iTunes for at least another month, but if you don’t mind a drive, the Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga is showing the movie Aug. 10 and Asheville’s Fine Arts Theatre is showing it Aug. 22.