Sunday, May 22, 2016

Big Star's Story: "Nothing Can Hurt Me"

Music fans often discuss “the best band that you’ve never heard of” or declare, “they should have been a huge success” when debating the merits of little known but influential groups. The fascinating documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012) tells the story of one such band. Big Star came together in Memphis in 1971, and made two outstanding, critically acclaimed albums before lack of support by their label, little or no radio airplay, and problems within the band caused the group to break up in 1974. Singer/guitarist Alex Chilton was the former lead vocalist for The Box Tops, who had scored Top 40 hits with songs like “The Letter” and “Cry Like A Baby.” He and fellow Memphis native Chris Bell had both recorded at Ardent Studios, and knew each other from the local music scene. Bell had a band called Icewater, which featured bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. When Chilton showed the other musicians some songs he’d written, they decided to work together, and Big Star was born.

Their debut, #1 Record, released in 1972, alternated between gentle acoustic numbers like “Thirteen,” and guitar driven rockers such as “Feel,” all laced with Byrds-like guitars & Beatles-esque harmonies. The album essentially set the template & direction for the power pop genre of the 70s, and beyond. Reviews were universally ecstatic, but the band’s label had financial & distribution issues, so people couldn’t find the album, much less buy it. The frustrating experience caused tensions within the band; Bell quit the group, rejoined, then later quit again. Their second album, Radio City (1974), was another strong effort, with wonderful songs like “September Gurls” and “I’m In Love With A Girl” showcasing the group’s polished pop song craft. But continuing issues with the band’s label doomed this release as well. Reviews were positive, but this record also had little or no distribution. The band's label was having issues after being purchased by Columbia Records, who did nothing to promote the group. Still, something about their music stuck in the minds & hearts of the people who did manage to hear their albums, or got to see them perform.

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me charts the band’s history through the recording of both of those records, as well as their third album, Third/Sister Lovers, which was recorded in 1974, but unreleased until 1978. The group is seen in archival footage, and there are in-depth interviews with colleagues, friends & family members, as well as famous fans of the group, including Matthew Sweet, Cheap Trick, The Replacements and Mike Mills of R.E.M. The film also follows the paths that Chilton & Bell (who were like the Lennon & McCartney of the group) took after the band’s breakup, and discusses their solo work. There's also coverage of the eventual reformation of the band by Alex Chilton & Jody Stephens in 2003, and the growing appreciation of their music thru re-releases of their albums. While the group had little success in their original incarnation, a funny thing happened: people began to discover their records; bands like The Bangles, Cheap Trick and The Posies covered their songs, and cited them as an influence. Rolling Stone included all three of their original albums in their list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” 

The film has an element of melancholy (especially since original members Chilton, Bell and Hummel have all passed away), but it’s also a celebration of the band’s music as well as their lasting musical legacy. This is an insightful, heartfelt look at a band who should have been superstars, but whose music still managed to reach an audience, despite their lack of mainstream success. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, and is worth watching for devotees of the band, fans of the power pop genre and music aficionados. It's also an interesting look at how the record industry worked back in the 1970s. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here are links to the trailer for the film:, and for the songs “September Gurls,” and “Thirteen,”

"I never travel far, without a little Big Star." Lyric from The Replacements song Alex Chilton, a track from their 1987 album, Pleased To Meet Me.

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