Judge Jason Panella never travels far without a little Big Star.
The Definitive Story of the Greatest Band That Never Made It.
Children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton.
Facts of the Case
1971: Four Memphis kids get together to put their Anglophile dreams on record. By 1974, the band had broken up for the second (and seemingly final) time after recording their third album. Music critics might've loved them at the time, but the band was essentially ignored by the record-buying public. Little did the band members realize that they would become the quintessential cult band, or how their music would help charge the imaginations for countless underground rock musicians.
Most Big Star devotees seem to remember the exact time and place of their first encounter with the band. When I was in high school in 1997, my parents and I visited the then-new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I don't remember too much about the trip, but I do remember spending some time at a kiosk where you could listen to snippets of great rock songs. Two of those tunes were Big Star's "September Gurls" and "Ballad of El Goodo." I listened to the two-minute clips over and over until my parents basically had to drag me away from the booth. A fan was born—over the next 15 years, I bought the band's music, explored their legend, and obsessively sought out bands influenced by Big Star.
So when I saw that a Kickstarter project to make a documentary on Big Star had been successfully funded in 2012, I got pretty excited. The resulting film, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, is just shy of being excellent—it has some pacing and narrative problems, but overall the film works as a love letter to a brilliant band that works for long-time fans and newcomers alike.
After a brief intro that features a bunch of fairly famous artists (Cheap Trick, The Flaming Lips, Matthew Sweet) gushing about their love for Big Star, the documentary dives right into the short-lived band's history. Big Star was formed in 1971 in Memphis, Tennessee by Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals), Chris Bell (guitar, vocals), Alex Hummel (bass) and Jody Stephens (drums). Big Star weren't interested in playing the "heavy" rock music that was filling American radios; instead, their love of British Invasion music informed their initial melodic sound.
Over the next few years, the band watched their dreams shatter: their first two albums went essentially unheard, Bell quit the band, and a downward spiral of emotional turmoil resulted in a third album that was never properly released until years after the band had broken up. But their legend somehow grew, especially when bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements went out of their way to name-drop Big Star at every opportunity. After spending almost two decades following his muse down some pretty weird back alleys, Chilton and Stephens reformed Big Star in the early '90s with Joe Auer and Ken Stringfellow (from the Posies).
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me covers the band's history thoroughly, for the most part-â€"the band's post-reformation history, especially their so-so fourth album, is given minimal screen time. By approaching this material chronologically, director Drew DeNicola makes the film unnecessarily confusing in spots; the narrative focus jumps around so much that it's a bit jarring. The documentary also features a ton of the band's music, but only in short burstsâ€"we rarely hear any song for more than 10 seconds, and only then as a buffer to another talking head.
The flaws aside, the quality of the interviews and archival material more than makes up for it. Countless people involved in the Big Star story are here: producers, musicians, friends, family members. Stephens and Hummel (who passed away right after principal photography took place) get a lot of face time. Chilton lingers around the edges; he also passed away in 2011, but was also notoriously wary of interviews. Bell, who died in an automobile accident not long after he left the band, looms over the documentary in a big way—despite his short tenure, he was Big Star, in many ways, and still remains the most mysterious and elusive member in the band's story. The movie does an amazing job of framing how tragic Bell's life was and, by extension, how heartbreaking Big Star's story was.
The fine folks at Magnolia Home Entertainment did a nice job with their Blu-ray release of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. The 1.78:1/1080p HD widescreen transfer is quite good; the contemporary interviews look sharp, and the archival footage is cleaned up as well as it could be. The Dolby DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is excellent; interviews are loud and clear, and the music (no matter how brief) is beefy and fills the speakers well. Magnolia also provides some great supplemental material. In addition to the film's trailer, there's over an hour of extra footage: Deleted scenes (10:32), which mostly focuses on the band's touring exploits; "Chris Bell" (18:33), a much more substantial look into Bell's life than what's presented in the feature; "Alex Chilton" (24:10), a pretty thorough look into Chilton's post-Big Star solo material; and "Big Star in the Studio" (15:14), in which producer/engineer John Fry (one of the unsung heroes of this documentary) talks at length about some of the details of the band's time in the studio and the resulting music.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me might not be a great documentary, but it is a very good one. The film's narrative structure might make it a frustrating view to people who have never heard of the band. The film does capture the strange, sad pull the band has for so many people, and as a fan I can say that's the most vital thing that this film accomplishes.
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