Big Star will get another opportunity to reclaim a positive legacy next week during the music portion of South by Southwest.
Few will forget frontman Alex Chilton's unexpected death on March 17, 2010, just days before Big Star was due to perform at the festival. That show became an all-star memorial for Chilton, while friend and The dB's co-founder Chris Stamey launched a series of concerts celebrating the 1978 Third album (later known as Sister Lovers) later that year. This year's SXSW will see the launch of the new concert film Thank You Friends: Big Star's Third Live...And More, captured last April at the appropriately selected Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif.
Stamey, filmmaker Benno Nelson and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens -- the group's sole surviving member -- will host a Q&A following the Mar. 16 screening, then play another Third show the following night at Austin's Central Presbyterian Church. "It's nothing but a positive event," Stephens, who will be seeing Thank You, Friends on a big screen for the first time in Austin, tells Billboard. "From the moment I heard about Alex's passing at SXSW [in 2010] to now, there's a remarkable appreciation for Alex and the music. It's a celebration of this music."
R.E.M. alumnus Mike Mills, who played the 2010 memorial show and has been a regular at the Third concerts, adds, "It's sad that three of them are gone, but anything that gets them out where people can hear [the music] is a good thing. Everybody wants to do these songs justice because the music is so special, and also because of Jody; You don't want to play somebody's music and not get it right. And you want to bring something special to it, if you can."
The Thank You, Friends, project was certainly special for Nelson, whose Yes Equals Yes production company worked regularly with music videos and promotional projects. "I was a huge Big Star fan back in the 90s when I was playing in bands and stuff, so I was excited about this," he says. "I pitched myself as being a Big Star fan first and foremost and I got the gig."
Throughout the 90-minute film, Nelson mixes the live performances -- featuring Mills, Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone of Wilco, Robyn Hitchcock, Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, Dan Wilson, Benmont Tench, the Kronos Quartet and more -- with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the players.
"I wanted to get the musicians themselves to tell the story because even though I'm a fan they have a much longer and kind of deeper connection to this music," Nelson explains. "So some of it was to touch on them and the legend of Big Star. I wanted to set up an environment where they could tell the story as much as possible." Carl Marsh, who wrote orchestrations for the Third album and conducted the string section at the Glendale show, also shared memories of the sessions.
The idiosyncratic music of Third, meanwhile, also impacted on how Nelson approached the film. "I wanted to try to bring an organic and off-kilter approach to shooting it, because the band was kind of off-kilter, especially on Third," Nelson says. "'Kangaroo' and 'Holocaust' come to mind as songs where we tried to have that weirdo vibe the album has, and some songs are shot more straight-ahead. But as much as we could, we wanted to wanted make [the movie] feel like the album."
Thank You Friends will be released as an album/video combo or as a standalone album, both with liner notes by Stamey and writer Anthony DeCurtis. Stamey plans to continue staging Third concerts in the future, and Stephens is happy that the film and subsequent release will continue to thump the drum for an album that most feel did not get it's deserved due when it was released.
"I definitely think there's a greater appreciate for Third, and for Big Star as a whole, now," says Stephens, who continues to work for Ardent Studios in Big Star's native Memphis. "It feels good that something we all had a really good time doing has reached out and touched as many people as it has."
Thank You Friends will be released on April 21. Watch an exclusive clip of "Kizza Me," featuring Jeff Tweedy and Django Haskins, below.