By Gregory Crofton
America had its own equivalent of the John Lennon/Paul McCartney musical partnership. They were Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, members of a band few people other than rock musicians – and some fans, many of them Memphis residents – knew about.
“BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT YOU” is, overall, a compelling documentary that opened me up to a band I had never been able really bring myself to listen to before. It delivers a lot of long-sought details about the demise of this obscure but internationally influential pop rock band.
The full four-piece version of Big Star played live just 10 times, and Chilton and Bell didn’t really sit for interviews. Thankfully Big Star’s music helps carry the film framing many scenes, though the doc would have been better if it included larger chunks of a few more songs.
I also was left wanting more personal details about band members. I had to learn about the deaths of Chilton and Bell from Wikipedia after the screening. The real strength of the film, however, is the emotional depth it creates in the telling the cheerless stories of these two fragile and very talented artists whose partnership fails because of Bell’s ego and drug use. Chilton and Bell eventually reunite in their own way, but success is not part of the scenario.
The film drops directly into the early 1970s Memphis art and rock scene that stemmed from Ardent Studios, a studio/label that at one point had deals with Stax Records and Columbia Records. That scene included legendary record producer Jim Dickinson, who guided the 3rd and final BIG STAR album, and color photographer William Eggleston, whose work the band featured as album art.
A lot of screen time is filled with interviews with older rock critics who help flesh out the impact of the band, which took its name from a Memphis grocery store chain. The critics allow us to understand how and why Big Star has had a massive influence on rock music. Undoubtedly the band’s uncompromising and progressive pop rock arrangements cleared a path for bands and musicians like The Replacements, R.E.M. and Elliott Smith.
The screening I attended included a question-and-answer session after the film that featured the documentary’s co-director/producer Olivia Mori; Big Star drummer Jody Stephens (the only living member of band); Carl Marsh, a Nashville string composer who worked on the third and final Big Star album; and Rick Clark, music supervisor for the film.
For me the highlight of the Q & A was Stephens’ reaction to the documentary. “I think they did an amazing job with it,” he said. “It tells a great story and we’re certainly grateful for that.” Stephens said a friend of his saw the film and told him it was one of the saddest stories he’d ever heard. “It is really sad,” Stephens continued. “You just kind of have to look forward and celebrate the music Alex, Chris and Andy left behind… and see the joy in that.”
Also interesting was a question from an audience member regarding how different Alex Chilton’s voice sounded (much higher) in Big Star compared to his vocals for his first band, The Box Tops, which had an international hit in 1967 called “The Letter.”
“Alex went to Greenwich Village and had a prolific spurt of songwriting… he came back with a different voice,” Co-director/producer Mori said. That part of his life was cut from the film but will be included as bonus footage on the DVD which, she said, should be ready in time for the holidays.
According to Wikipedia, while in New York Chilton hung out with Roger McGuinn, the leader of THE BYRDS, a folk rock group whose vocal style you can hear reflected in Big Star’s first record.