Billed as the definitive story of the greatest band who never made it, the new rock documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" will no doubt be a must-see for serious music aficionados who already know every note the power pop group ever recorded. But what they may not be as versed in is just how Big Star came to be in the first place or how the band who inspired countless acts who would go onto great success (including R.E.M., The Replacements, Belle & Sebastian, Beck, Jeff Buckley and Flaming Lips among others), never found success of their own. Pitchfork called them “not just rock's greatest cult band [but] arguably rock's first cult band” and their music has inspired cultish devotion from its fans for decades. Even casual music fans are probably familiar with two of their songs: "In The Street" which graced the opening credits of "That 70's Show" via a Cheap Trick cover and their frail ballad “Thirteen” which has been covered by everyone from Elliott Smith to Wilco.
Formed in Memphis in 1971 by co-songwriters
Alex Chilton (who found early success as the singer of The Box Tops) and Chris Bell along with drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel, Big Star's sound encompassed both Beatles-esque pop harmonies and achingly sad confessionals that made them stand out from their more bombastic contemporaries. This original lineup would only last for one album, #1 Record, which was released to great critical acclaim but because of complications with their record label Stax (known primarily for handling funk and soul acts) could barely be found in stores. After the failure of their debut, Bell left the band to pursue a solo career and the remaining members went onto record two more albums (Radio City and the coming-apart-at-the-seams album Third/Sister Lovers which was delayed for four years) over the next few years before finally calling it quits in 1974.
The band's trajectory will not be unfamiliar to anyone who has read a musician's biography or watched a few episodes of "Behind The Music" (formation > inspiration > destruction) so the only real variables are in how the story is being told. Assembled from new interviews with band members and those close to them alongside archival photographs, filmmaker Drew DiNicola has assembled a sharply produced love letter to the band but due perhaps to the lack of available materials, the film feels at times scattered, and incomplete. Of the many bands that have been influenced by Big Star, only a few of them are interviewed here and the same goes for the critics who have adored them (their first three records all ranked in Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums Of All Time list). With two of its founding members no longer with us -- Bell died tragically in a car accident at age 27 and Chilton passed away a few years ago from a heart attack -- the filmmakers struggle to piece together the whole story.
We hear Chilton's recollections via an interview recorded shortly before his death and Bell's brother appears to fill in some of the gaps on his late sibling but it doesn't get us as close as we'd like to be to the subjects. There is also unfortunately no footage of the band performing live or in the studio during these early years. Though the film spends much of its time during the band's heyday of 1971-1974, it does trace Chilton through his post-punk career after the band's breakup and Bell through the end of his life in 1978. What it almost seems to gloss over is the 17 years the band spent touring after reforming in 1993. Though it's to be expected, you have to wonder if there was more there in the story of the cult band returning alongside a generation of bands it influenced and still not finding success? Strangely enough the arc of the band is similar to Anvil (who received the doc treatment a few years back with "Anvil: The Story Of Anvil") but where their story had a happy ending, the story of Big Star feels sadly incomplete.
As we said when we caught the work-in-progress screening at SXSW back in 2012, "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" should bring the band to a new generation of fans by serving as an sufficient greatest hits for a band who ironically had none. And while we still recommend it to fans of the band, be warned that it might leave you wanting an encore. Big Star [A] "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" [B-]