Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Rock doc covers cult band for both acolytes and the unfamiliar
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012)
Directed by Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori
When a song by The Replacements comes on the radio, my face almost always melts into a grimace. But there’s one song, one perfect pop-rock anthem—from the band mocked in They Might Be Giants’ “We’re The Replacements”—that always results in an impromptu sing-along: “Alex Chilton.” The song’s chock-full of great lyrics, but the clear standout is: “I never travel far/ Without a little Big Star.” Depending on your perspective, the tale of Big Star is either utter tragedy or simple reality. Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori's documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me attempts to get at the heart of Big Star. An anecdotal opening revolves around the first and only National Association of Rock Writers Convention, a $40,000 promotional stunt that brought over 100 rock critics together to witness Big Star in 1973. They didn’t sway, as the stereotypical pretentious rock-crit is wont to do. And they didn’t nod or tap their toes. They danced ... to Big Star.
Angel-headed hipster Alex Chilton, Big Star’s long-term protagonist, died in 2010; cofounder Chris Bell crashed into the hereafter in 1978. Access to the band’s schema and essence is now only available peripherally. Unless you’re a hardcore Chilton-phile or Big Star fan, this doc has plenty of history, trivia and genuine insight that may enlighten. The stock footage and photography of Stax, its subsidiary Ardent Records and ’70s-era Memphis alone is worth the price of admission.
Add to that in-depth interviews with the Ardent crew, rock glitterati—including Paul Westerberg of the above-mentioned Replacements and Robyn Hitchcock—and a generous serving of sonic soul food and sound bites produced by members and incarnations of Big Star. It’s not hard to recommend this film to both acolytes and the unfamiliar. Beyond talking heads, these documentarians talk with engineers and producers. The segments featuring Ardent’s Jim Dickinson and John Fry threaten to outshine video of The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd and Kliph Scurlock, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and so on … and on and on. These “big star” accolades don't substantially detract from the work, but the inclusion of so many star-studded testimonials feels a bit heavy-handed.
Prime mover Chilton got his first taste of fame at age 16, when he sang lead vocal on The Box Tops’ “The Letter” and it broke out as a number-one hit in 1967. Saying that Chilton had mixed feelings about fame is an understatement. As Chilton wrote and sang on the 1973 Big Star tune “O My Soul” (from the post-Bell album Radio City), “I can’t get a license/ To drive my car/ But I don’t really need it/ If I’m a big star.” The cinematic irony that this doc hard-sells a band whose fate stemmed from a complicated—some might even say jinxed—relationship with mechanisms of commercial success must be noted.
Around an hour in, however, Nothing Can Hurt Me appears to lose its narrative mooring. The first hour makes such masterful use of traditional doc tropes and techniques like anecdotes, archival footage, audio, interviews and pristine close-ups that the remaining footage seems to lag.
So it’s not a perfect film. And not in an intentional leitmotif of Big Star’s career sort of way. But if you’re a Big Star fan, this is definitely a must-see. If you appreciate tragic beauty—which this world brims over with—you should see this film. If you’re merely looking to impress a hipster crush, at least bone up on the band’s catalog before wooing your pop-rock fanatic date; sometimes the sublime lurks in the most unlikely places—in horror, beauty, spontaneity and collapse. As Chilton wrote and plaintively but besmirchingly intoned on Third’s “Big Black Car” chorus, “Nothing can hurt me/ Nothing can touch me/ Why should I care?/ Driving’s a gas/ It ain’t gonna last/ The lights above, oh yes/ I see the stars above.”
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