70s power pop outfit Big Star are legends in our time, but not in their own time. Their songwriting and composition was unparalleled back in the day, but no almost no one outside of the critical cognoscenti paid them any mind for a variety of reasons. They lasted three albums, all beloved and underexposed, and then they embraced their seemingly inevitable break up before the member’s lives began to get really juicy and dramatic.
In Drew DeNicola’s oral history of the non-existent rise and meteoric fall of the band, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, those who were around the band and knew the situation best serve to fill in the gaps for a group no one really outside of their hermetic Memphis community knew all that much about. They actually weren’t even accepted in their hometown, a city one would expect to appreciate good music. It’s a well researched and sprawling work that fans of the band will appreciate and interested passing parties could potentially floored by. It’s still a music doc at heart, with all of the stereotypical trappings that come with the genre, but damned if it isn’t a great story.
It’s kind of a slow burn to get to the really interesting stuff. The formation of Big Star – fronted by former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton and the brainchild of guitarist and singer-songwriter Chris Bell – isn’t particularly remarkable stuff. They were a professional band that always knew what they wanted when they hit the studio, and the recording of the albums themselves were pretty organic affairs. They caught the eyes and ears of the producers at Ardent Studios, who then entered into a distribution agreement with famed soul label Stax because they wanted a rock division. Their debut, cheekily titled #1 Album, received raves from critics pretty much across the board.
But Big Star weren’t making the kind of “heavy” album oriented rock that was gaining attention, and Stax never put in any sort of promotional or marketing push behind the band. After two albums, a folded record label that never helped them to begin with, and even a management hosted convention of music writers that solidified their status as industry darlings, they almost crawled into third and possibly most melodic and melancholy album, they called it quits.
That part of the film is a little bit slower than what follows in DeNicola’s recounting of events. The film starts to become less about the band not making it and more about the duelling relationships and diverging musical arc of Chilton and Bell. It’s appropriate since most of the remaining band members weren’t sticking around in the late 70s, and it’s more fascinating to see where the two ended up than where they had been.
Bell, who left the band immediately after the first record tanked for personal reasons tied to his depression (and who erased all of the masters tapes on the way out) became a born again Christian and flourished as a singer-songwriter that was taken from the world a bit too soon. He kept the dream of Big Star alive almost single-handedly. Chilton, on the other hand, grew more discontent, getting heavier into drugs and turning to punk and noise rock while collaborating with The Cramps and Tav Falco’s Panther Burns.
What starts off as a look at an underrated band and what made them special becomes a more personal and satisfying experience when talking about the giant personalities the albums were built upon. It’s a story filled with tragic figures and the best of intentions all around, and a more common story of the record industry that doesn’t get told as often. It just helps that Big Star made some of the best albums of the decade to go along with the tale.