For decades now, people have asked “Why weren’t Big Star huge?” A band with as much mystery, legend and passion amongst its fans as Big Star would merit a film to be made; a vehicle that could tell their story in words, visuals and music, all in one place. Such a documentary now brings Big Star’s history to life. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me helps in trying to answer the complex questions that have long surrounded this band. Born of a Kickstarter campaign in the late spring of 2012, the movie is, in many ways, the ultimate Big Star package, at once a valentine for longtime fans and a perfect primer for those unfamiliar.
It isn’t just another movie or rock documentary — it’s a revelation. It is the story of a band who became the gold standard in the evolution of “alternative rock” (a term I am, frankly, loathe to use) during the ‘80s, as well as a gateway for fans of hook-laden, lodged-in-your-head “power pop.” Ultimately and obviously unknowingly, Big Star were ahead of their time. Nothing Can Hurt Me‘s directors, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori and producer Danielle McCarthy, did their work with thoughtfulness, thoroughness and diligence.
The first incarnation, the #1 Record version of Big Star (which is thought of as the “classic” Big Star line-up): Chris Bell (vocals, guitar)/Alex Chilton (vocals, guitar)/Jody Stephens (drums, vocals)/Andy Hummel (bass, vocals) – look happy and excited; hopeful about what appeared to be a bright future. However, it very quickly became apparent that this was not to be so: the nightmare of #1 Record (their debut album) being literally unavailable anywhere due to the problems between Stax (the distributor for their label, Ardent) and Columbia Records, no airplay, not playing live, being broke and the inevitable drugs and alcohol all led Chris Bell to quit; as quickly as they thought they’d rise, they fell apart instead, having only lasted between 1971 and 1972. There isn’t a great deal of footage available of the “original” Big Star, but what could be found and assembled by the filmmakers was a thrill (I’m certain there will be plenty of extras when the DVD becomes available).
The stories shared by such notables as John Fry, the founder of Ardent Studios/Ardent Records, Steve Rhea, who had been in an early incarnation of the band, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel (who lost his battle with cancer in 2010) are recounted with detail, fondness and a sweet melancholia – along with the perspective of fans/respected musicians, such as Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter and Mike Mills, to name but a few. The film is filled with ghosts, memories and immeasurable warmth. The seamless manner in which the filmmakers let the individual recollections blend together in telling the different sides of the band’s story was a masterstroke. And by my having been to Memphis just three months prior to seeing the movie, I was able to immediately recognize everything and personally felt more a part of the experience. By virtue of this movie, fans of Big Star owe a debt of gratitude to the filmmakers, for bringing this story to an even wider audience with Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and hopefully for more generations to come.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me made its initial premiere at many of the national independent film festivals late last fall – I saw it as part of the IFC Festival in New York – but having now been picked up for major distribution by Magnolia Pictures, it makes its theatrical, VOD and iTunes debut on July 3rd.
On a personal note, I saw this movie twice; I wept both times. This movie was long overdue and well worth the wait.
Along with the film’s national release comes the companion soundtrack album, via the good folks at Omnivore Recordings (in conjunction with Ardent). The album and CD’s official appearance will be on June 25th; while there have been a few Big Star compilations, might be the most cohesive of those available.
The most important thing about this soundtrack is its continuity and the fact that all the songs are previously unreleased/unheard tracks, which should immediately entice all longtime Big Star fans as well as the casual first-time curiosity seeker. These are alternate, rough or “movie” mixes and you can hear the marked differences. While I would have loved for Chris Bell’s “Psychedelic Stuff” or Rock City’s “Think It’s Time To Say Goodbye” in their enhanced movie mixes to have been included, this album nonetheless works perfectly. The “Studio Banter” track along with the movie mixes of Chris Bell’s “Better Save Yourself” and “I Am The Cosmos” and Alex Chilton’s “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” makes this a must-have.
If all this wasn’t enough, it has also been recently announced that there will be an all-star performance of Big Star’s 3rd (also referred to as Sister Lovers) album, to be performed in its entirety for free at New York’s Central Park on June 30th. According to the New York City Parks Foundation’s website:
“Big Star’s Third is a full performance of the iconic album by an astonishing who’s who of rock music featuring famed vocalists including Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, Marshall Crenshaw, Pete Yorn, Reeve Carney (Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark), Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev) and Beck Stark (Lavender Diamond), supported by an all-star band including Mike Mills (R.E.M.) on bass; Mitch Easter (Lets Active) and Chris Stamey (The dB’s) and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star) on guitar; Charles Cleaver on keys; Django Haskins (of The Old Ceremony), Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz on harmony and guitar; and original Big Star member Jody Stephens on drums, all backed with a twenty- piece chamber orchestra including the famed cellist Jane Scarpantoni. In addition, the concert will feature a selection of earlier songs, including the much-hailed “September Gurls” and “In the Street.”
And so the legend continues to grow…