“To me, Big Star is like something that got posted in 1971 but didn’t arrive until 1985 — like something that got lost in the mail.”
That quote, from perennial cult rocker Robyn Hitchcock, perfectly sums up the enduring legacy of the semi-legendary 1970s Memphis rock band Big Star, whose brief, three-album career is depicted in “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
Playing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday as part of Space Gallery’s Summer Music Film Series, the documentary chronicles the hard-luck tale of perhaps the quintessential cult band, a critical darling that never broke through but whose fans (apart from that guy who always corners you at parties) include the likes of R.E.M., The Jesus and Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, The Flaming Lips, Cheap Trick and, of course, The Replacements, whose rocking ode to the Big Star frontman “Alex Chilton” proclaims, “Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round/ They sing, ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?/ I’m in love with that song.’ “
But who were Big Star?
Springing up amongst the Memphis music boom in the mid-’60s, Big Star was the brainchild of high schooler Chris Bell, who quickly gathered bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens.
Then they reeled in Memphis native Chilton, who, as a precocious 16-year-old singer for The Box Tops, already had a 4-million-selling single, “The Letter,” under his belt.
Recording at Memphis mainstay Ardent Records, the group proved adept at creating a layered sound that, as Hitchcock states, does feel ahead of its time.
Coupled with Chilton’s plaintively evocative voice, Bell’s gift for production and an almost preternatural gift for irresistible choruses (just try to resist the hooks in the likes of “September Gurls,” “Watch the Sunrise” and “The Ballad of El Goodo”), Big Star’s sound is an arresting blend of exuberant sadness.
So what went wrong?
The film seems less than certain about that, too, with former band members, critics and famous fans all extolling the band’s innovative sound while at the same time theorizing that the music’s very ambitiousness may have been the root of its lack of popular success.
As one critic explains about Big Star’s second record, “Radio City,” “This was not a record that revealed itself fast.”
Along the way, the band was beset with some bad luck (Ardent distributor Stax Records went bankrupt, leaving that second album moldering in a warehouse), and some internal strife, with the sensitive Bell spiraling into depression at the band’s commercial failure and the fact that Chilton began to overshadow him.
Add to that both Chilton and Bell’s increasingly idiosyncratic artistic ambitions (and some good ol’ drug and alcohol issues), and Big Star’s journey to oblivion seems, in the film, all but inevitable.
While the filmmaking aspect of “Nothing Can Hurt Me” isn’t particularly novel (pan ‘em, zoom ‘em, color ‘em and re-jigger ‘em all you want, but looking at period photographs is never going to be arresting cinema), the film does successfully convey both the inherent sadness that such an ambitious and talented band never hit the big time, and the perhaps pyrrhic victory that the band is so well regarded to this day. (Big Star’s only three records were all included in Rolling Stone’s list of the best 500 albums of all time.)
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Bull Moose Music — I’ve got some albums to catch up on.
“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s director, Drew DiNicola.
Tickets are $8; $6 for Space members and students with ID. Visit space538.org for more details.
Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.