They never had a hit record, nor filled arenas, but Big Star was the sort of band that inspired a deep-seated devotion in those who were lucky enough to discover their music. It's with that love and devotion that Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was made.
The documentary chronicling the band's tragic story was released on DVD and Blu-ray Nov. 26, containing the acclaimed film as well as bonus features on singer-songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton; the band's studio sessions and the film's trailer. The film tells the story of the band's formation in Memphis, breakup, lineup changes, and release of their original three albums under the Big Star banner. It also covers the band's reformation along with testimonials from members of Cheap Trick, the Flaming Lips, R.E.M., the Replacements, the dB's, Robyn Hitchcock, and more.
Count Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, the band's last surviving original member, among those who impressed with the documentary. "I love the film," he says. "I think they did a wonderful job. The biggest impression that it made on me is the tenacity of the film crew and the care they took in doing it. [Producer] Danielle McCarthy started the journey six or seven years ago and she had the tenacity to get it right."
According to the film's writer/director Drew DeNicola, McCarthy fortuitously began shooting footage for the film even before he had signed on to direct. She was behind the camera for the interviews with late legendary producer Jim Dickinson, who died in 2009, while the film was still in production. "Thank God she did get that, because he's an amazing narrator," DeNicola says. "He knew how to frame this just right." Before the film wrapped, Chilton and then bassist Andy Hummel died in 2010, of a heart attack and cancer, respectively.
It was while working as a college radio DJ at Tulane University in New Orleans that DeNicola discovered the band. It was the early '90s, and Rykodisc had recently reissued some of the band's catalog on CD. He was drawn to Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, housed in the label's trademark emerald green-tinted jewel boxes. "The Third record was really my entryway," he says. "The first two records were a little to straightforward for me when I was a freshman in college, but I just needed more, so I listened to the other two records as well."
The 37-year-old DeNicola wasn't alone. It seems every few years a new generation of fans discovers the band. And like the Velvet Underground, many of Big Star's fans happened to be in bands. The Replacements released their homage "Alex Chilton" on their 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me. In the song, 'Mats frontman Paul Westerberg proclaims, "I never travel too far without a little Big Star." A few years earlier, the band met and played some shows with Chilton and he produced demos of songs that later appeared on Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, but as early as 1984, the 'Mats were dropping hints about their love for Big Star. They slipped the opening chords of "Feel," the first track on Big Star's 1972 debut #1 Record on to the end of their raucous B-side cover of Hank Williams's "Hey Good Lookin'." Others were more obvious. In 1984, the U.K. collective known as This Mortal Coil covered "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" on the album It'll End in Tears. The Bangles included a version of Big Star's "September Gurls" on their million-selling 1985 album Different Light. The late Elliott Smith was known to cover the band's "Thirteen" and "Stroke It Noel"; the former saw an official release on the 2007 posthumously released collection New Moon. And perhaps most famously, Cheap Trick's cover of the band's "In the Street" was used as the theme for the long-running sitcom "That '70s Show." As Robyn Hitchcock says in the film, "To me Big Star was like some letter that was posted in 1971, but arrived in 1985, just like something that got lost in the mail."
For the fans that didn't live the Big Star story in real time, their musical output is somewhat distorted. When #1 Record and the band's second album, 1974's Radio City, were issued on CD in the early '90s, it was as a twofer that crammed both albums onto a single CD — initially omitting some tracks — so the albums blend together in the mind of some listeners.
"I've been lamenting that that's the way so many people get into the band now, because when you hear those two records in one CD you don't even realize where the first one ends and the second one begins," DeNicola says. "As I try to do in the film, I try to show how different records those were."
Nothing Can Hurt Me set the record straight, pointing out that the albums have distinctly different feels and were recorded with different personnel. Bell left the band following the release of #1 Record, disappointed about the critically acclaimed album's commercial failure. (After trying unsuccessfully to launch a solo career, Bell died in a 1978 car accident). Most of the attention #1 Record did receive focused on Chilton, who had previously achieved stardom as the voice of the Box Tops on such late-'60s hits as "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby."
Initially, Chilton recorded three songs that ended up on Radio City with drummer Richard Rosebrough and bassist Danny Jones, before regrouping with Stephens and Hummel to complete the album. "'She's a Mover,' 'Mod Lang,' and 'What's Going Ahn' were three of the songs they cut we wound up using on Radio City, because we couldn't better them," Stephens recalls. "We made attempts to recreate those songs, but those recordings as they were made such an incredible impression."
Prior to completing Radio City, the band regrouped to play the first Rock Writers Convention in 1973 where they were greeted enthusiastically by critics, including the legendary Lester Bangs. The scene, depicted in the film, cemented the band's love affair with rock critics and encouraged the band to go back into the studio to finish Radio City. "Walking into it, you might think it would be an intimating thing," Stephens says of the Rock Writers Convention, "but rock writers were our audience. We didn't really have an audience outside of them. No one really knew who the band was."
Radio City was also critically acclaimed, but failed to find an audience as band's label, Ardent Records saw its distribution deal with Stax and Columbia Records crumble soon after its release.
Chilton, Stephens and an assorted cast of characters went on to record what would later be titled Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers, since Chilton and Stephens were dating a pair of sisters at the time. The haunting and harrowing album that surveyed the depths of Chilton's dark psyche initially went unreleased for several years, before it was finally issued in 1978 -- and subsequently rereleased on CD in 1992 -- and was belated proclaimed a masterpiece by critics.
The film also tracks Chilton's subsequent musical experiments, adopting punk-rock influences, producing psychobilly punks the Cramps, and playing with art-damaged rockabilly combo Tav Falco's Panther Burns, before finally agreeing to play in a resurrected version of Big Star with Stephens and Posies members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.
Through it all, we only hear and see Chilton in archival interviews, since he never agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers prior to his death. "We met him a couple of times and he was polite, but dismissive of the project," DeNicola says. "But he never said, 'No.' Toward the end he was saying, 'Why don't you come down to New Orleans and we'll talk some more, but don't bring a camera.'"
While the filmmakers never scored that elusive Chilton interview, they did capture the tribute show that served as a wake for Chilton just days after his death on March 17, 2010 at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas.
Today the band lives on with similar elaborate tributes spearheaded by Chris Stamey of the dB's, featuring Stephens and an allstar cast of Big Star devotees that have included Stamey, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, Mitch Easter of Let's Active, Pete Yorn, and others, backed by a string section to meticulously recreate the majesty of Big Star's Third. Although the concerts are costly to stage and logistically complicated, they've managed to play shows in Austin, London, Chicago, Barcelona, and New York, with a date in Sydney, Australia set for January.
"It's pretty sad," the 61-year-old Stephens says about his status as the band's only surviving member. "I'll think of question I have and I'll think, 'Oh, I'll ask Andy,' and Andy's not here, or Alex, and Alex is not here. And Chris has been gone a long time. The only way to move forward is to appreciate what these guys have left behind, and keep the music alive by doing these shows and showing how much we all care for it."