Making its local theatrical debut this week after winning Best Documentary Feature at last fall's Indie Memphis Film Festival, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is a sprawling, affectionate, and sharply constructed portrait of the legendary Memphis band of the '70s that helped relaunch the career of Alex Chilton and launch, a decade later, a whole generation of alternative-rock and post-punk bands.
Created by New York-based filmmakers Drew DeNicola (writer/director), Olivia Mori (co-director), and Danielle McCarthy (producer) with ample cooperation from Ardent Studios, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is an impressive work, especially considering the total absence of full performance footage. The doc does an excellent job weaving what archival material there is (including brief, provocative silent bits of in-studio footage) with talking-head interview segments to tell a compelling story of the constantly evolving band and the scene that surrounded it.
After an overture that begins with a 1978 Chilton radio interview, drops in on the oddball 1973 Memphis Rock Writer's Convention, and features testimonials from alt-pop inheritors from bands such as R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, the Flaming Lips, and Yo La Tengo, the film digs into Memphis, finding the roots of Big Star in the city's post-British Invasion high school garage-band scene.
Rather than simply depicting the band — singer-songwriter-guitarists Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens at the time of the band's initial album, 1972's #1 Record — as one of the underappreciated patron saints of what would later be called "alternative" rock, Nothing Can Hurt Me puts great care into the case for Big Star as a specifically "Memphis" band, one that is explained by their roots in local culture rather than one that stands apart from the city's more dominant musical scenes.
Along the way, the story of Big Star also becomes the story of Ardent Studios and the story of Memphis' '70s alternative culture. We get mini-portraits of artist William Eggleston and producer Jim Dickinson. We dive into the liquor-by-the-drink Overton Square bar scene. Pre-dating and post-dating Big Star itself, the film uses the evolution of Chilton to tell a musical story that stretches from mid-'60s pop (the Box Tops) to late-'70s punk (Chilton pals the Cramps and the "anti-musical environment" of Tav Falco's Panther Burns).
Though there are plenty of testimonials from people deeply affected by the band, the film is nicely modulated, making its case without ever slipping into hagiography. Part of that is simply letting the band's still-bracing music play, specifically such timeless recordings as "Thirteen" and "September Gurls." Other grace notes are unadorned: Luther Dickinson, sitting in the background at his family's Zebra Ranch studio, playing a solo version of the band's "Nighttime."
The band's problems — from distribution disaster to substance abuse to interpersonal dynamics — are not sidestepped. Stephens, the lone remaining bandmate when Chilton and Dickinson cut the band's final album, the pain-transformed-into-beauty Third, and the last living member of the band, is matter-of-fact about the scene that produced that album: "Self-absorption and self-focus and drugs and alcohol." The late Dickinson sums up the band's "cult classic" arc sharply: "Big Star never had to face the reality ... staring in the mirror every night, trying to pay for the bus. The fantasy was able to grow, until it blew up."
If Chilton — curiously unspoken-for — is the story's through-line, it's band founder Bell, who died in a single-car crash in 1978, at age 27, who emerges as perhaps the film's most striking figure. Bell's brother David remembers crying the first time he heard #1 Record, but Bell's sister, Sara Stewart, so removed from the culture of the band and its ensuing cult, provides the most affecting moment.
"I feel almost guilty sometimes talking about the music part of it," she confesses. "Because it wasn't my thing. I can't help it. I kind of resented it. It makes me sad. I'm happy for him, but I ... "
It's a moment that shocks you out of the musical story, reminds you that there's a limit to the purchase your fandom has on these lives.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Opening Friday, July 12th
Studio on the Square