The existence of a lovingly detailed, moving documentary about the ultimate cult band, Big Star, is another ironic example of the Memphis quartet’s belated appreciation.
The Big Star lineup featured the enigmatic, late singer-songwriter Alex Chilton — who got famous at 16 with the Box Tops’ No. 1 hit, “The Letter,” and later lived largely under the radar in New Orleans for 28 years — singer-songwriter Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and, the lone survivor in the band’s original lineup, drummer Jody Stephens.
Big Star released its album debut, #1 Record, in 1972. An emerging group of young rock critics, who regarded rock music as art, loved #1 Record. But the public and mainstream radio didn’t even notice the album, which was released by the Memphis label, Ardent Records.
The irony of the band’s name, Big Star, and the album’s title, #1 Record, seems cruel in light of the unyielding failure of both. Bell, having anticipated big things, was heartbroken. He withdrew from the band and attempted suicide.
In Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, writer-director Drew Denicola and co-director and co-producer Olivia Denicola tell the band’s story through a beautifully assembled collection of archival film, photos and audio.
The Denicolas also include an extensive number of interviews with many Big Star associates, such as Ardent owner John Fry and the late Jim Dickinson, the colorful producer of Big Star’s third album, Third/Sister Lovers, and Chilton’s likewise doomed 1979 solo album, Like Flies on Sherbert.
The filmmakers obviously have affection for their subject, but their film doesn’t play as hagiography. Big Star creative principals Chilton and Bell’s involvement in drugs may be underplayed, but they both are presented as flawed artists capable of working against their own interests. Most importantly, various on-camera interviewees and archival audio from Chilton illuminate Chilton and Bell’s art.
“Those two were like a couple of comets or shooting stars,” bandmate Hummel says. “Jody and I were caught in the bow wave of Chris and Alex.”
The tragedy of Big Star continued with Hummel’s death at 59 in July 2010, four months after Chilton’s fatal heart attack in New Orleans at 59.
However self-defeating Big Star may have been, the documentary reveals a symphony of music business bad breaks. In the era when people still bought vinyl records at local record stores, Ardent lacked the means to distribute #1 Record. The partnership between Ardent and the great Memphis soul label, Stax, turned disastrous, sabotaging distribution for Big Star’s second, also loved by critics, album, 1974’s Radio City.
Chilton carried on with a third version of Big Star featuring new bassist John Lightman. Gigs in front of almost empty rooms, however, took further toll upon him.
“I felt really awful for how disappointed they were at the lack of response that they got,” Lightman says. The discouraged Chilton said, Lightman recalled, “My attitude about music is I can take it or leave it.”
The film also covers Chilton and Bell’s post-Big Star work. The wily Dickinson shares his memories of Chilton. Bell’s brother, David, and sister, Sara, give poignant details about their brother’s continued frustration and auto-accident death at 27.
Chilton’s many years as a New Orleans resident, on the other hand, are barely mentioned in the film. Seems like an oversight, but shooting star Big Star, represented most of all by the band’s triptych of Memphis-made Ardent albums, and Bell’s similarly obscure solo album, “I Am the Cosmos,” are a logical focus for the film.
With Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Big Star, the Vincent van Gogh of rock music, gets a documentary worthy of its legend.
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