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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Big Star Documentary Opens Tonight

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 12:14 PM

BIG STAR: Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel
  • BIG STAR: Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell and Andy Hummel
The Big Star documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, opens this weekend, and it's been getting very good reviews. I liked it, too, even if I ultimately felt it wasn't interested in doing the thing that a wide-release music documentary about a great, overlooked cult act should do: introduce the band to a substantially bigger audience. The film, thorough though it was, contains a lot of insider baseball from talking heads (some of whom are difficult to keep track of), and big chunks of the Big Star story are neglected or dealt with cursorily—for instance, Alex Chilton's time in the Box Tops, and Chris Bell's tragic death at age 27. You'll need to bring knowledge of the Big Star story to get the most out of the documentary.

That said, Nothing Can Hurt Me gets a lot of things right—most significantly, the lingering, weird sadness that surrounds almost every aspect of the band's story. They made truly excellent music, and the lack of response they received took its toll. (All things being relative, of course: #1 Record sold around 10,000 copies upon its release in 1972, and 1974's Radio City sold twice that; they'd be outright hits in the internet age.) The documentary also examines Big Star's relationship with Stax Records, which I found interesting; Stax's focus on their own acts like Isaac Hayes meant the white boys in Big Star were sidelined, and when the label went bankrupt in 1975, Big Star—whose albums were released on Stax subsidiary Ardent—and their legacy were caught in the undertow.

I suppose I'm nitpicking, because I think every Big Star fan will enjoy Nothing Can Hurt Me. And actually, that almost unconditional adoration for the band—from fans, from critics, from musicians—is a big part of the Big Star story. The film does a great job of depicting that whole element of the story, which has nothing to do with the band members' personal lives. There is a lot of footage of old, weird, nerdy rock writers (good god, what is going to happen to me?) rhapsodizing about Big Star songs, which is fine, except it comes at the expense of filling in some of the details of the band's actual history. As someone who knows the Big Star story moderately well, I felt at sea during the movie a few times, wondering "who's this lady talking?" and "did we just skip over a major section?" and "what happened to...?"

Still, if you love Big Star—and if you've heard Big Star, you love Big Star—go see Nothing Can Hurt Me, which opens tonight at the Hollywood. Also: Following tomorrow evening's screening, Ken Stringfellow (who was in the reunited lineup of Big Star) will play some Big Star songs. He'll be joined by a couple special guests whose names haven't been revealed, but if you know Stringfellow's work you can probably guess which musicians-about-town will be joining.

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