Movie Review, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”

3stars

The legend of the band Big Star was born back in May of 1973, when a promoter flew legions of young rock critics into Memphis for a “convention” that was essentially a stunt to get them to hear Big Star perform.
Big Star, a Memphis group built around former BoxTops singer and songwriter Alex Chilton (“The Letter”), were a bit out of step with the music of their day, a power pop quartet just a little ahead of their time. Most people know them for creating the song “In the Street” that was adapted and covered by Cheap Trick as the theme to “That ’70s Show.”
With their jangly Byrds-inspired guitars and close harmonies, Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens were already earning glowing reviews, if not great record sales. But that May ’73 junket stunt cemented them in legend. As the fame never came and the decades of musical experimenting by the leading lights of the group went on, the myth only grew.
“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” explores that legend through interviews with surviving members of the group, vintage radio tapes of those who haven’t survived and scores of testimonials by those influenced by this band with the outsize impact on the music to come. Robyn Hitchcock describes the band as like “a letter posted in 1971, that arrived in 1985.” Members of R.E.M., The Flaming Lips, the dbs and Yo La Tengo marvel at their sound and that they never lived up to their name, copped from a Memphis supermarket chain.
The Drew Nicola/Olivia Mori film explains why. Producers, recording engineers, band members and others talk their certainty that “this thing was going to take off.” Botched distribution by Stax Records meant that the LPs never were in stores as the rave reviews came out. And with their reviews going to their heads, the group wasn’t touring and promoting itself in a way that would ensure success, eventually.
As several observers note in the movie, they were stuck in the fantasy of fame even after it failed to materialize. But as the years went by, the records inspired a cult of Big Star fandom. Chilton kept playing, experimenting and reviving the name Big Star, feeding off the legend.
But the music — on ample display here — only occasionally hints at what all the fuss was about. The filmmakers were plainly true believers. They’ve made an overlong and often repetitious movie, dragging out a “Behind the Music” story arc to just shy of an unsustainable two hour length. There isn’t much in the way of “live” Big Star performance footage to make their case. And lacking context — maybe clearing the use of music that was influenced by them to demonstrate how far ahead of their time that they were — would have helped.
It’s a fascinating period in music and an equally fascinating story of promise, talent, expectations and failure. But you can’t help but feel that “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” won’t settle the most important argument of all to the unconverted — Were they as good as the hype?

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language
Cast: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey
Credits: Directed by Drew Nicola, Olivia Mori. A Magnolia release.
June — Limited

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10 Responses to Movie Review, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me”

  1. steve says:

    Their albums are classic, as fresh today as they were 40 years ago.

    • I didn’t take that from the movie. A lot of people say that. The music sampled, in its current post-80s context, doesn’t sell itself, not in the film anyway.

      • jim f says:

        What hype? They were never hyped. They thought, and they were right of course, that the music was good enough in and of itself. There was ZERO hype around the Big Star experiment. These were HONEST musicians. Young kids making adult pop that was simply ahead of its time. Chris Bell, as an example, could have very easily hung around for Radio City, and probably made it even better. But he said screw it. If the people can’t hear it, they don’t deserve it. The same went for Chilton, but he gave it one more shot then imploded with Big Star’s Third, making it a funeral dirge wrapped in a manic depressive straight-jacket. Big Star cannot be sampled and enjoyed. I have been digesting their music for three years now, and I am still loving it.

      • Flying every rock critic in the new profession of rock criticism to Memphis in 1973, as the film suggests, is the very ESSENCE of hype. Breathless reviews, a real pack mentality among the critics of that era about their greatness largely created by that little junket created the legend. And then failure to market based on that hype were the reasons they failed to break out. They were huge to all the R.E.M.ish bands of the ’80s that they inspired. But who listened to that jangly rock-pop beyond the early 90s?
        Very hard to take them out of context and appreciate them for what they were — ahead of their time or not. A failing of the film, and if the music doesn’t live up to that “greatest band that never broke out” billing, a failing of Big Star.

  2. aaronjlevitt says:

    Big who?

  3. jim f says:

    To understand you would have to have been exposed to their music. I found it three years ago and now.. well, it’s at the top of my playlist. For example: GIVE ME ANOTHER CHANCE may be the best ballad of the 70’s, and to appreciate it you would have to have listened more than once, for sure. I don’t expect a movie critic who has never heard a single Big Star song to appreciate their genius. Context is everything, they were 21 and 22, working alone in a studio, and basically produced three of the greatest albums in rock history. Nuff said.

  4. bud fritz says:

    First of all, you’re overly fixated on that press junket as a significant moment in their story- they were already critics’ darlings well before Chris Bell left (As the film recalls, one of the reasons for his acrimony was the increasing focus on Chilton in those rave reviews). As for your lack of appreciation for the utter beauty and timelessness of those 3 albums, even as too briefly sampled in the film, well, there’s no accounting for taste.

    • Big Star fans seem to be drifting off subject here. The movie is what I am reviewing. The movie makes the case that they gained their rep largely through a “convention,” and the movie — maybe through rights clearance, maybe through approach, fails to make the case for their immortality. Most of you don’t seem to have seen the movie — and are determined to defend this static moment in musical time where you parked your musical taste. Good on ya.

      • buddy says:

        I saw the movie a few days ago, and I stand by what I said above. As for being ‘determined to defend this static moment in musical time where you parked your musical taste’, the truth of my relationship to their music is quite the opposite: they’re not a band I have a particular identity attachment to, or who I think about that much at all. But whenever I hear their music- including during the film- I’m consistently impressed by how moving, innovative and beautiful it is. Since I can’t experience the film without having had a prior experience of their music, I may have to concede that you are correct in saying that this film is for fans and won’t convince those who aren’t ‘what all the fuss is about.’

  5. RM says:

    As someone who knew very little about Big Star prior to seeing the film, I agree overall with this review. The film is too jagged to follow for someone who is unfamiliar with the band. If you are a huge fan of Big Star, then I would guess you probably wouldn’t find that much that was “new” that you did not already know in those 2 hours.
    Also, overall, I feel that this was a depressing film. Just kind of ends very flat, like you’re not sure what to say. But that’s the story of the band, I suppose.
    Still, I did stop in a record store after seeing the film and picked up a #1 Record on wax. Sounds great!

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