Movie Review – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Now

Bands or musical acts that are influential are usually those that are incredibly popular and/or have changed the musical landscape. They are celebrated and recognized by critics and the public alike, and though some people may not like their music, it is hard to deny the importance of their body of work. Yet there are those other bands and artists that have a cult following, and though the size of their impact may be smaller, the strength of it on those affected is similar to that of bigger-named artists. In some cases, truly dedicated fans of these artists have made documentaries to not only tell their story but to also expose their music to a wider population (e.g. Searching for Sugarman about Rodriguez). With the release of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the story and music of the critically-acclaimed, “cult” band Big Star is trying to reach a wider audience than its records ever did, and deservedly so.

big_star_nothing_can_hurt_meI have written about Big Star before, specifically on their first album, #1 Record, and though I only found out about them 6 years ago, I can definitely say that I am a very big fan of their music. So when I heard of this documentary being made a few years ago, I got very excited. Ironically, the film, like the career of the band, had several obstacles to overcome before it was released, including the deaths of several people critical to the telling of the story and funding for the project. Thankfully, interviews had been done before those that died passed away, and the movie was funded by a Kickstarter campaign (which I took a part of), and the documentary has finally been released.

To say that Big Star’s story has been undocumented would be false. The fact of the matter is that the story has been told and well known by many fans for decades. The problem has always been getting the band’s story to the masses. Rock critics have hailed the group’s work since #1 Record was released in 1972, but due to lack of airplay and recognition (their song “In the Street” was the theme song for That ‘70s Show, though never their version) most people still have no idea that this band ever existed. While Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Now is likely to stay as a limited-release feature, it is a massive step towards giving the band the recognition and accolades they deserve. The film does a fantastic job of telling the whole story of the band and showcases the amazing music that has been heard by few.

The main storyline for the band is that due to distribution problems of the band’s first two records their music never sold in stores, and thus was rarely played on the radio, even though they were both critically acclaimed. However, as the film shows, that is only the tip of the iceberg that is the story of Big Star. There is the story of Alex Chilton, the former teenage pop star who could never shake his past, no matter how far he tried to get away from it, before eventually embracing it before he unexpectedly passed away. Then there is the story of the Chris Bell, the tortured genius, who could never find the fame and recognition he wanted, or deserved, and ultimately joined the infamous “27 Club.” Sure, both stories sound cliché and very Hollywood-esque, but the fact that they are true stories makes them that more compelling.

Yet for me, the most important part of the film was how impactful and important the group’s music was on musicians around the world. I am certain that the first time I heard the band’s music I experienced something similar to that of members of R.E.M., The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, The Posies (two of whom actually joined the second incarnation of Big Star), The dBs, and many other bands, which is just simply being blown away. As interesting and compelling as Chilton and Bell’s stories are, they are pointless without the music that the two men wrote. That is the real story of the band, and the film does a great job showcasing it. The stories behind how the songs were recorded and produced are interesting, and the film does a fantastic job of including the producers and engineers in the story telling, giving each piece of music a complete story. Hearing how John Fry found Chris Bell working in the studio overnight or how Jim Dickinson pushed Alex Chilton to embrace chaos makes it easier to understand why the songs came out they way they did. And the film goes beyond the band’s work, including Chilton and Bell’s solo and post-Big Star catalog in the soundtrack, telling the other side of the two musicians personal stories, making them that more captivating.

In the end, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is a must-see, especially for musicians and music-lovers, but is one that I think most people will enjoy. The story lines are there and so is the soundtrack. I’m not a film buff (nor a critic) but my friend who saw the film with me is (and is also a music lover) and loved the film. Many critics have enjoyed it as well, but hopefully unlike their albums, the public will embrace Big Star’s story. While the band, and three of its four original members, are not around any more, the music still lives on. And as I stated earlier, that is the whole point of the film: getting Big Star’s music out to the uninformed masses.

Now go see this film.

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To find where the film will be playing, go to http://www.magpictures.com/bigstar/showtimes.shtml. You can also rent the film on iTunes or watch it on demand online. However, as a friend of mine said, you probably want to watch it with “real theater sound.”

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3 thoughts on “Movie Review – Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Now

  1. Haven’t seen the documentary but I would have loved if someone had inserted a camera into the “Third/Sister Lovers” sessions to get a front row seat for Chilton not giving a crap anymore . . . I think the aura surrounding the record makes it seem more willfully destructive than it actually is (it’s definitely eerie and despondent in parts but it never gets to a Skip Spence or latter-day Television Personalities level where you’re listening to an audio documentation of someone’s complete mental breakdown) but considering what kind of shift it was from even “Radio City” to what we got there, I’m curious as to what went into that, even if I like to imagine Chilton giving himself more votes via the use of hand puppets. Or Chris Bell stopping in to see what his old bandmates were up to, witnessing what was going on, and then quietly backing out without saying a word.

    To me what Big Star does that a lot of the bands that followed were directly influenced by them (or claimed to be because it was cool) didn’t quite match was a sense of desperate urgency. Chilton wrote catchy songs but had that tic in his voice that made him seem on the edge almost all the time, that hinted at despair without turning into a Swans album by way of the Beatles and probably can only be achieved by the realization that you are making great music and nobody in the world gives a crap about it. That’s what I hear in their songs, especially when you get to “Radio City”. “#1 Record” sounds like a band who has all these big hopes and dreams and believes that hopes and dreams are enough to make you rich and famous, all very innocent and optimistic . . . and then it all comes crashing down when you realize that it’s not that your best isn’t good enough, it’s that nobody is paying attention to your best and the world will get on quite well without you, thank you very much. I really can’t imagine what that’s like, investing so much of yourself in something and receiving nothing but indifference, knowing that if people listened it could make a difference but there’s nothing you can do about it. In that respect, we’re probably lucky the last two Big Star records weren’t aural versions of middle fingers.

    I think that’s why I sometimes prefer “Radio City” even though the first album has all the glossy “hits” that would later send all the power-pop fans swooning. It’s more uneven but when it hits it articulates the sound of nerves being laid bare, someone who is completely disillusioned writing pop songs but unable to keep that bitterness from leaking out (the line in “O My Soul” where Chilton lopsidedly proclaims through a mix that can best be described as erratic “I can’t get a license to drive in my car/but I don’t really need it because I’m a big star!” where it’s intense sarcasm not as a pose but he really can’t keep it in anymore). Everything sounds like it’s thirty seconds away from falling apart completely and you’re wondering how the band makes it through the song intact. And then they come up with stuff like “Back of a Car” or “September Gurls”.

    I first heard the band in the late nineties where I was just getting into listening to music as a thing as opposed to buying albums from people who sound like REM or trying to form a better musical foundation by getting sixties albums. In a Rykodisc catalog I saw the listing for “Third/Sister Lovers”, thought the writeup sounded alluring for a band I’d never heard of and wound up finding that and the two-fer of the first albums in a Coconuts not long after. I feel like I came about it backwards from how people do these days, where the Internet had made them slightly more well-known or from hearing their favorite indie-pop bands name-dropping them. Listening to them was like a gateway for me into a whole host of other bands (Teenage Fanclub comes to mind foremost) and in that sense Big Star works as like a Rosetta Stone of sorts for power-pop and indie-pop since you can go from semi-obscure Big Star to all those now semi-obscure jangle pop bands like the dBs and Game Theory down to Teenage Fanclub and the Posies and you get kind of this weird alternate history of pop music, of radio hits that never were forming this undercurrent to what was happening in the mainstream. Because that’s what “#1 Record” sounds like to me the first time I heard it (and I’m sure I’m not alone in that). The only thing really comparable to me was discovering all the New Zealand pop bands and wondering how this wasn’t more popular.

    But I think the sound of a band being crushed by forces beyond it’s control and able to get that across in their music (intentionally or otherwise) is what really separates them from all the others. The first time I heard “Kizza Me” and it starts out normal and poppy before suddenly cutting into that weird off-key barrelhouse piano while Chilton snarls “I want to white out!”, early-twenties me was wondering if I was hearing a nervous breakdown happening during recording and it was weird because it felt like an unguarded honesty that I wasn’t really meant to hear. It’s that balance of on-the-edge and “let’s do whatever the hell we want because who cares” that’s interesting to hear. If there wasn’t some deliberate craft involved, “Kangaroo” would sound like a formless mess but because they were able to put some thought into their not-caringiness, it winds up expressing this drugged out ambiance perfectly and encapsulating the album for me. It’s not a fun dream, but the only other option of waking up doesn’t look too appealing either.

    I’m glad they’re becoming more well-known and I hope Chilton got to enjoy that (he was so oddly contrary I wonder) even if they never (and may never) became a household name in his lifetime. I feel worse for Chris Bell, who got the short end of the stick in a lot of ways (some of them self-imposed) . . . his “I Am the Cosmos” came too late to prove that he could manage without Chilton but the title track is really one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. Again, it’s honest in that way you don’t feel you’re meant to hear, but not from being embarrassingly confessional, it’s just too close to the bone. You can’t look at the person the same way when you’ve seen that deeply into them.

    A good question, so I can actually stay on topic . . . I’ve read mixed things about the documentary in terms of how well it brings the band across to an audience that potentially has never heard of them. Does it work well as a primer for say, my parents, and get across what made them so neat, or is it more a thing where people who are already fans can reiterate why they like this band so much and look at the rest of us like babbling fools for our bug-eyed intensity? I’m glad it exists regardless but it seems like a distinction worth making.

    • To answer your question, I think it’s definitely more for music nerds, but I think the stories are interesting enough that most people would enjoy it. But then again, I’m super biased.

      Also, if you ever want to write an entry for this blog, just let me know. Your response was longer and more detailed than my entry, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

      • That’s the vibe I had gotten from some reviews that I read, “preaching to the converted” so to speak but I can’t imagine how they would pitch it to a general audience. “Remember how your parents used to groove to that one hit by the Box Tops? Come see that guy and some other people you’ve never heard of vanish further into obscurity. Buy the soundtrack!” The best hope is that it’s welcoming and open enough to embrace all the curious ones who gingerly poke their heads in to see what all the fuss is about, like passing one of those clubs in NYC with the solid steel doors and hearing just the barest thump of music passing through and it sounds kind of neat. You put your ear to the door and hear the willowy strains of revelry and wonder, “Gee, this sounds like fun. I wonder if it’s the kind of fun that I would like.”

        Then they open the door a crack and see Jack Black from “High Fidelity” pontificating (or worse, a whole roomful of those people) and close the door very quickly before scampering off to the safe and comforting arms of Nickelback Because when people imagine music critics and music nerds getting passionate about something, it’s like a cross between Mr Black and some serious horn-rimmed man from NPR speaking an obscure language that they can’t relate to. They get frightened, like baby deer. “It’s just a song it’s just a song, why are you so wild-eyed? Stop yelling at me about songs!” Or worse: “If they’re so good why have I never heard of them?” Deep breath, be welcoming. Smile. Perhaps serve some refreshments. After all, the trick is to get them in the room.

        In a perfect world through, the documentary would cost five dollars to make because it would simply be a shot of someone putting in the CD of “#1 Record” and just letting it play, maybe somewhere public so you can watch their reactions. “Hey, someone’s covering the theme to ‘That 70s Show’! Ha ha, maybe Ashton Kutcher is about to punk us!” This is how the documentary would get an R-rating so maybe that’s a bad idea. The story will draw people in to some extent even though it’s rather anti-“Behind the Music” (there’s not the warm fuzzy feeling of watching a band rising from the ashes, spirits intact . . . Chilton never played the same type of music again, never really worked with Bell again beyond a couple scattered “Radio City” tracks and the “You and Your Sister” single . . . sure they got tagged with the “influential” medal but that and a buck-fifty will get you a cup of coffee, as they say . . . fame and fortune just wasn’t in the cards) and unless Paul Westerberg was really writing about Outer Mongolia when he penned “Alex Chilton” I don’t think they can even go for the Rodriguezesque segment of the ticket buying audience. But if there’s someone who cares more than a lick about music beyond aural wallpaper or something to dim the lights with, putting one of those albums on and letting them listen can really blow their world up in a similar way to how it happened for you or I or any number of people. Because it really exposes you to a subset of music history that you may not have been aware existed and from there you can just keep digging.

        I mean, it should be that easy. It’s not like they’re trying to do a Captain Beefheart documentary for a mass audience. Although that probably exists, too. And God bless those people.

        Thanks for the blog invite . . . if you ever want someone to pinch hit for you, certainly put me on the roster but this is your blog and I wouldn’t want to horn in on the territory you’ve staked, especially when there’s plenty of ways I could set up my own space to subject unsuspecting tens of people to my verbiose ramblings. You’ve got a definite point of view here and a passion that’s all you, don’t let me go diluting it!

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