Sunday, August 11, 2013

Big Star's Nothing Can Hurt Me

When it comes to pop and rock music from the last 40-odd years, the world can easily be divided into two simple parts: those who’ve heard of Big Star, and those who haven’t. The cult following that has been growing around this quasi-mythic Memphis band for decades now is such that the very words “big” and “star,” spoken in that particular sequence, have become a kind of code-speak for insider hipness.

It’s been this way at least since the Replacements’ song “Alex Chilton” (which name-checks the band and its most famous member) came out in 1987. It was intended as a tribute, which it is, though it also created a problem: it made a demigod of Chilton, erroneously implying that the former singer of the late ’60s pop act the Box Tops was the de facto leader and founder of Big Star. This misconception is now being remedied, thanks to the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which was officially released in July and has been playing in select theaters.

Big Star's Nothing Can Hurt Me

For the faithful flock that has long been genuflecting at the altar of Big Star, this is video manna raining down from rock ’n’ roll heaven. For the curious, the as-yet-unconverted, and the true music maven who has somehow overlooked the band, there’s no better starting place than this film, which will likely stand as the definitive version of the Big Star saga. Nothing Can Hurt Me presents the reasons behind the band’s commercial failure and resulting semi-secret status at the pinnacle of rock’s anointed few, and does a good deal more.

The film lays out the far larger pop-culture context in which Big Star emerged, fizzled and improbably found new life on the sheer strength of its once-hard-to-find records, aiding the viewer in appreciating what the band accomplished within perhaps the worst possible time period and circumstances. The sprawling and often poignant story is told by a sizable cast of Memphians who played roles ranging from central to supporting to peripheral (though the late and notoriously media-wary Alex Chilton, who was still with us when the film began production, characteristically opted not to participate). Cameos from members of the music press and the international indie-rock elite confirm the extent of the band’s effect upon them and the disciples who were still to come.

Memphis Music In The 1970s

Then, of course, there’s the music. It seeps through the very pores of the film, as well it should, providing an essential dimension of the story (and one that threatens to distract from it at times). An accompanying soundtrack (available on CD and, fittingly, vinyl) offers various remixes and one original demo, while the film itself does contain bits of lesser-known music from founding member Chris Bell and other associated Memphis bands.

Indeed, Nothing Can Hurt Me is secondarily a film about the Memphis music scene in the ’70s, and includes such items of interest as interview segments with legendary producer and indie-music godfather Jim Dickinson (including a look inside his inner sanctum) and a vintage local TV clip that hilariously demonstrates just how revolutionary—or at least controversial—Memphis rockers were capable of being. The film also documents Chilton’s late 1970s move to New York City, where he became involved with such groups as the Cramps and retooled his own career, drawing from punk and alternative sensibilities that left many of his fans befuddled.

Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel & Jody Stephens

Because the nearly two-hour-long documentary is packed—more correctly, layered—with compelling music and multiple story threads, as well as some very artful visual moments (like, for instance, the neon sputnik scene that aptly accompanies one of Big Star’s eeriest tracks), one viewing won’t likely be enough to catch all that it has to offer. One, however, is all it takes to explicitly convey to the viewer what is often implicit in the songs and vocals of Chilton and Bell: that is, the considerable struggle experienced in their interior lives.

Don’t be misled by the title—Nothing Can Hurt Me, for all its celebration of Big Star’s music and its belated, bittersweet victory, is anything but pain-free. For the faithful flock, however, the opportunity to finally see this long-deserved story come to life so splendidly on the screen will make the ache bearable. [Review by Steve Morley]

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