I saw Alex Chilton perform at the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2008. The summer music festival is known more for its abundance of fried food on sticks, large, sweaty crowds, and the best people-watching this side of the Mississippi. The quality of music – as locals argue it – often takes second tier. There have been, on occasion, exceptions. Chilton was one of them.
He played twice. Once was with The Box Tops, the band that rocketed to stardom with hits such as “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” The second was with his band at the time, The Alex Chilton Trio.
During his entire time at the festival, Chilton played only one Big Star song – the group for which he is most famous. It explained a lot about his feelings toward that time in his life. And it left me hungry to know more about what happened.
When I accidentally discovered a trailer online for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the documentary about Big Star’s commercial failure and eventual musical resurgence as rock music’s celebrated forefathers to 1980s and ‘90s alternative/punk/garage-rock music, I knew two things: I had to see the film, and I had to interview the people behind it.
I had been emailing Danielle McCarthy – one of the film’s producers – for months, trying to get an interview with her, director Drew DeNicola, and co-producer Olvia Mori, as well as working with local film club – Mise en Scenesters – to get the film to premiere in my town. But the filmmakers had been busy putting the final touches on and promoting their critically acclaimed documentary, which was released in theaters across the country in July.
Luckily, McCarthy was gracious enough to eventually make both happen.
It has taken her since 2007 to get her documentary about the legendary Memphis power pop band made. But after six long years, two Kickstarter campaigns, and numerous setbacks, it all came together.
Teaming with DeNicola and Mori, the three filmmakers crafted their love letter to rock history’s most overlooked and underrated band. It’s a film by Big Star fans, for Big Star fans. But more than that, it’s the definitive story of a band that was ahead of its time and went on to inspire countless groups such as R.E.M., The Replacements, Counting Crows, and Teenage Fanclub, helping to shape rock history as we know it.
The idea for the documentary came from McCarthy, who was chatting about the band with a friend while sitting in a Memphis bar. He urged her to go for it, and she did. But like Big Star, she, DeNicola and Mori ran into their share of challenges. Money, the reluctance of Alex Chilton – the band’s singer, songwriter and arguable leader – to participate in interviews for the film, and the sudden deaths of both Chilton and original bassist Andy Hummel in 2010 all led the filmmaking trio to question the direction the project would take, and even if it would get made at all.
“We actually did two Kickstarter campaigns — the first one in 2010 shortly after Alex passed away. Kickstarter was relatively brand new and not many people knew what it was,” says McCarthy. “We didn’t know what to expect so we set our goal pretty low — just $6,000. And then we hit our goal in 24 hours. It was nuts. And then we went on to raise over $14,000. I think after that first Kickstarter campaign was a real turning point for us. We finally had tangible proof that there was a serious interest and desire for a film about Big Star. Then we did the second Kickstarter campaign last summer to raise the funds to finish the film, and we were much better prepared and set a much higher goal which we surpassed and raised over $40,000. And, once again, the fans didn’t let us down. Without the aid of Kickstarter, I’m not sure we’d be able to make the film.”
Before Chilton died, McCarthy was nervous about approaching him regarding an interview for the production. She had courted him for months about being a part of the production. And she was warned that he might be difficult.
“I was at Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah Show in 2007, and I was supposed to talk to him then. I was so nervous that I got completely trashed,” she said, laughing. “I was obviously too drunk to talk to him. So, it was kind of scary. I called him five or six times before he finally picked up the phone. He was super friendly. But it was nothing personal. He just didn’t do interviews. And I think we were still grappling with that when he passed. And we had a moment when we were like, ‘What are we going to do?’”
The film took on a whole other level, becoming less about the primary people involved and more about the music, the stories, and the essence of Big Star and its legacy.
DeNicola explains his theory on why the band, despite receiving glowing reviews from rock critics, never made it to stardom while they were together. To him, part of it had to do with the dynamic between Chilton and Chris Bell — the John Lennon to Chilton’s Paul McCartney – who died in 1978 at age 27.
“Chris Bell had this master plan for this kind of super-group he wanted to have. But it wasn’t necessarily what was on everyone’s mind. It wasn’t on Alex’s. What you get is an incredible diversity of sound and approaches on those records. I think that disjunction between the concept and the actual music, what actually emotionally came through out of those songs that was inadvertent that makes sense to me that was wonderfully packaged. But it’s also, I wouldn’t say uneven, but you’ve got a lot of different moods on those records. You’ve got a lot of different sounds going on. In a way, it’s almost like Alex Chilton realized that. It’s almost like he’s saying we’re not going to be big stars.”
And so, instead of becoming mainstream successes, Big Star has become known as one of the most innovative bands in rock history, the band’s genius only to be recognized decades later.
“I think because they didn’t make it for so long, they got used to that,” says DeNicola, sounding passionate yet tired. “They got used to the limbo. They got used to being outsiders. They didn’t want to satisfy anyone. There’s a lot of freedom there. If you don’t get a lot of commercial acceptance, you can do whatever you want.”
And that’s exactly what Big Star did. And that’s why they’re remembered.
After his second show at Riverbend five years ago, Chilton signed autographs and talked to the small crowd of fans, including me. Thinking back on it now, he seemed comfortable with his low-key status; maybe even preferred it.
Just like in Big Star, he still seemed like an outsider to it all.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is in theaters now and is also available to rent on iTunes and On Demand.