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