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.
I 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.
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.”