MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Big Star’ looks at great band that never made it



3 out of 4 stars

Referred to as both the unluckiest and most interesting band from the ’70s, the Memphis-based group Big Star might just be the greatest act you’ve never heard — or even heard of. Over the span of just two years they recorded three albums — all of them listed on the Rolling Stone Top 500 albums of all-time — and collectively didn’t make a plug nickel. Thanks to multiple distribution snafus, amateurish marketing, supreme naiveté, being too smart for the masses and just plain bad karma, they fell through the cracks and almost into permanent obscurity.

At a time when psychedelica, metal and blues-based three-chord stuff was all the rage, Big Star went decidedly against the grain yet was still audience-friendly. Mixing British Invasion with California folk, surf band harmonies and complex classical-based arrangements, it was at once challenging and calmingly infectious. Many years after their demise, Big Star was credited by dozens of far more successful ’80s and ’90s artists as being a key influence and is regularly regarded as the pioneer of “power pop.”

“Nothing Can Hurt Me” is a documentary not unlike many others that chronicles the rise and fall of a rock band but in the case of Big Star it’s no rise and all fall. Co-written and directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, the film is absolutely essential viewing for both rock fans and egoistic musicians convinced of their own future fame. If a band as talented as Big Star couldn’t make it, no one is immune to failure, no matter what their level of prowess or breadth of vision. Show business is inherently and illogically fickle and Big Star is the prime example of genius gone unrecognized and horribly slighted.

The movie presents a double-edged sword for established Big Star fans. There’s nothing contained in it they don’t already know about and it’s clear the filmmakers — obvious hard-core devotees — poured their hearts into it. They included everything they possibly could and did so with the best intentions but should have passed along their final cut along to an unbiased editor without an emotional stake. Though not often, the movie occasionally plays out more like a fan’s love letter than factual, unbiased document.

If you’re among the many uninitiated, “Nothing Can Hurt Me” will play out like the best never-made episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.” In the first few minutes you’ll see a performance of “The Letter” performed by the Boxtops, fronted by singer Alex Chilton. A child of two musician parents, Chilton sang the song in a faux gravely baritone ala Jim Morrison, as instructed by the song’s producer. Chilton would do so again many times — most notably in “Cry Like a Baby” — and reached his musical commercial peak while still a teenager. As we soon find out, Chilton’s natural vocal register was actually a mid-soprano and he could make anything he sang sound totally natural and thoroughly convincing.

Not long after the demise of the Boxtops, Chilton walked into a recording session at Memphis’ fledgling Ardent studios and met Chris Bell, another writer/singer/guitarist whose love of British pop rivaled his. A performer who was much better suited to be a collaborator/second gun than front-man/soloist, Bell found a kindred spirit in Chilton and the songs they composed for the groups’ debut album (“#1 Record”) were on par with everything Brian Wilson wrote for the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” matched the diversity of the Lennon/McCartney songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and was flavored with some crunchy Who/Kinks rhythm power chords.

The reviews for “#1 Record” were unanimously positive but also (accurately) pointed out that Chilton was the clear artistic leader of the group. As Big Star was largely Bell’s concept, these accolades mildly thrilled but largely angered him and he reacted in much the same manner as a spurned, second-hand lover. Adding fuel to the fire was Chilton’s outward non-interest in success — likely fanned by his unpleasant financial experience with the Boxtops.

After a brief implosion, Big Star re-formed as a three-piece for their second album (“Radio City”) and then a two-piece for their third effort (“Sister Lovers”) and after too much sweat equity that yielded even more non-return, Chilton frustratingly pulled the plug. In most instances of rock lore that would be the end of the story yet more was to follow and all of it is enthralling and — sadly — equally disquieting.

Big Star was a band that like literally thousands of others, never made it, but unlike almost all of the also-rans, ultimately survived the test of time and has firmly secured legendary status. They’ll likely never make it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but have inspired many others that did. This movie will crushingly break and then slightly mend your rock ’n’ roll heart. (Magnolia)