Near the beginning of the documentary film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me rock critic Lester Bangs equates Memphis rock band Big Star with The Beatles. At the time of his comment, a 1970s interview, few people had heard of Big Star. Turns out Bangs was on to something. Big Star’s three albums, released between 1972 and 1978, influenced young musicians who would shape rock’s indie movement in the 1980s. The film provides plenty of evidence to support Big Star’s importance. Surprisingly, the band’s key role as a musical bridge between 60s and 80s rock is left unexplored.
The makers of Nothing Can Hurt Me clearly intend for their film to reach beyond Big Star’s existing fans. The trailer describes the film as “the definitive documentary about the greatest band that never made it.” But Big Star, whose music combined the uplift of 60s pop/rock with indie rock’s emotional complexity—think “Help” by The Beatles sung at the slower speed originally envisioned for it by John Lennon—was out of step with mid-70s rock and pop fashion. It’s unlikely that the band could have ever “made it” commercially, even with the promotion and distribution they deserved. And doesn’t everyone have a favorite “band that never made it”?
Following Bangs appearance, musicians from prominent bands including members of R.E.M., The Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, and Teenage Fan Club, take turns acknowledging Big Star’s influence. The moviemaker’s approach seems to be that if enough highly regarded musicians say how great the band was, we will be convinced. Not one attempts to say why the band is important.
Fortunately for longtime fans as well as neophytes, the film provides an excellent biography of Big Star. Guitarist and songwriter Chris Bell, barely out of high school and a veteran of the Memphis rock scene, had the nucleus of the band together by 1970. Alex Chilton, a friend of Bell’s, and the band’s other creative force, already had a number one record to his credit as the lead singer for The Box Tops (“The Letter”). The band caught a major break when it found a recording studio and a supportive owner/engineer in Ardent Studios and John Fry. Fry let the group use his studio when it wasn’t booked. By the fall of 1972, they had accumulated enough studio expertise and songs for an album. A regional grocery chain inspired the name.
Two of Big Star’s original members, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, are interviewed in the film, but the group’s story is related mainly through family members and associates. Insightful comments come from guitarist Jim Dickenson, producer of Big Star’s final album, and John Fry, whose status as engineer and studio owner gave him a front-row seat on the band’s brief career. The story is personal for several of those interviewed. Chris Bell’s sister becomes visibly emotional as she reminisces about Bell, who died in a 1978 car wreck. Bell’s older brother seeks to comfort her, saying something to the effect of “I know. You’d rather have him here than have his music out there.”
Although Big Star’s lack of commercial success is chalked up by the film to record label bungling, it was just one of the factors that sank the group. Bell, struggling with drug abuse, chronic depression, and with Chilton over artistic control, quit after the band’s first album, #1 Record, was released. The second, 1974’s Radio City, generated as little response as the band’s first. By the time Third/Sister Lovers appeared on a small label in 1978, Chilton and Stephens, the two remaining members, had gone their separate ways. Ironically, a double album combining Big Star’s first two records was released in the UK the same year. It marked the beginning of a slow but steady rise in the band’s reputation.
Near the end of Nothing Can Hurt Me, in another round of interviews with critics and well-known musicians, Michael Stipe (R.E.M. co-member Mike Mills also appears in the film) says that Big Star’s music effectively combined “the exuberant and the melancholic,” adding that doing so isn’t an easy feat. It’s a welcome and fitting observation about Big Star’s unique musical qualities. Stipe never addresses the band’s importance to R.E.M. or other bands that came of age in the 80s.
The companion CD/LP soundtrack lists twenty-one “unreleased” Big Star songs. These turn out to be a combination of alternate and new mixes created expressly for the movie. Aside from the addition of studio chatter, these tracks are almost identical to previously released versions (the appearance of stacked lead vocals on “Don’t Lie to Me” is a pleasant surprise). The soundtrack may contain little new, but any Big Star collection reveals that the band’s brightest power pop was never all it seemed. The subject of “September Gurls,” the band’s most likely hit, is an ode to the ultimate in unattainable love, a pin-up girl. The work of Chilton and Bell followed eerily similar creative trajectories. As they moved toward separate post-Big Star solo careers, both detailed the agonies of isolation—Bell, the spiritual side, represented here by “I am the Cosmos,” and “Better Save Yourself,” and Chilton, the human angle, on “Holocaust” and “All We Ever Got from Them Was Pain.”
The makers of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me deserve our respect for preserving the band’s history for future generations of music fans, but viewers will have to look elsewhere to learn what is only apparent now: Big Star was a crucial link between hits-oriented 60s pop/rock and the emotionally driven, commercially unconscious indie artists of the 80s.
For that we should be grateful.