There is a template for the rock documentary about great underappreciated artists, about a band that should have been huge, but somehow wasn’t. In recent years documentaries about artists like Rodriguez, Fishbone and Anvil have explored this theme. The new documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, about the great Memphis band Big Star conforms to the template, in a way. But Big Star were sort of the quintessential cult band. They made the mold of the band that should have been big but wasn’t. Maybe even more so than, say, the Velvet Underground, it seems like every indie rocker of the late-’80s and early ‘90s was a devout Big Star fan.
The documentary (look for it in CT in August) features members of Teenage Fanclub. REM, Jesus and Mary Chain, the Replacements, Yo La Tengo, the Meat Puppets, and the Flaming Lips all extolling the genius of Big Star. And it wasn’t just musicians who loved Big Star. The film begins with a bunch of rock critics talking about how beautiful and pristine the band’s 1972 debut, #1 Record, was. It didn’t hurt that one of the band’s most famous shows was to a gathering of rock critics in Memphis — sort of a perfect audience for a band whose sound didn’t fit into the bombastic big-rock feel of the era. Big Star made clean and concise pop — music that wasn’t saddled with the muddle-headed hippie vibe of the late-60s or with the bloated “heavyosity” of the burgeoning arena rock and prog scenes. The band basically invented what’s come to be called power pop. Clean, smart, pretty, energetic, concise, not sappy.
Nothing Can Hurt Me will leave you teary-eyed about the frustrated career, the sad loss and early death of Chris Bell, one of the band’s two main singers and songwriters. Bell was sort of the Paul McCartney to Alex Chilton’s John Lennon. (Though maybe they both had a touch of George Harrison’s reluctance, and complex, dark genius, which could have contributed to their failure to connect with the world at first.) Big Star was a Memphis band. And Memphis is a music city. Elvis. Sun Studios. Stax. Beale Street. The lineage is pretty serious. Big Star formed after Alex Chilton left the Box Tops in 1970 and returned to Memphis. (He and the band had had a hit with “The Letter” when Chilton was still a teenager.) He met up with Bell, who had access to the recording equipment and space at Ardent Studios. (One detail the documentary leaves out is that Chilton allegedly went to New York City in the early ‘70s for a stretch, and even tried to lure Bell there with him to perform as a folkie duo, but Bell wanted to stay in Memphis.)
As Chilton told an interviewer, “Memphis was a hotbed of recording activity” — the Sun and Stax scenes made it a town with lots of musicians, lots of amateur producers and self-taught engineers. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens says Memphis was a city of neighborhoods filled with kids dying to take a crack at what they were obsessed with. “You could build a baseball team or a football team, you could also build a band,” says Stephens. Memphis also had its own scene of outsiders and artists. Chilton’s mother ran a gallery. The photographer William Eggleston evidently gave a teenage Chilton peyote. (One of Eggleston’s photos was used as the cover image for Big Star’s second record, Radio City. If the Stones had Annie Leibovitz and Robert Frank, Big Star had Eggleston, sort of.)
Nothing Can Hurt Me isn’t necessarily one of those documentaries that only preaches to the choir. It’s true that Big Star fans — the thousands and thousands of them that have been minted long since the band recorded its last real record in 1975 — will dig this film. But it’s also true that music fans in general will find it fascinating. If you’re not already familiar with Big Star (though you may have unknowingly heard Cheap Trick cover their song “In the Street” as the theme song for “That 70s Show,” or maybe you heard the Bangles record Big Star’s majestic “September Gurls” back in the ‘80s) this film will make you want to dig into the band’s material. If you are a fan, the film sheds light on the complicated relationship between Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. It also does the service of making the case that Bell was as crucial a creative force behind the band, even though he left the group after their first record.
If you’ve never listened to Big Star — spend a little time with “The Ballad of El Goodo” or “Thirteen” or “I’m in Love With a Girl” or “Life is White” or “Daisy Glaze” and you’ll hear impeccable pop music, songs that are both bright and mystical, songs that capture teenage restlessness, longing and defiance. It’s not a stretch to say, as several of the critics and musicians in the film suggest, that these records are as good as the Beatles.
The fact that Big Star didn’t immediately become huge has something to do with the tastes of the era (bombast was big), but it probably has more to do with the simple failure of distribution channels of the record business at the time. Ardent Records had arrangements with a few other labels — Stax and Columbia Records. Those labels had their own troubles that coincided with Big Star’s releases, and some of those records evidently never left the warehouses, even though they got great reviews.
Big Star made three records. And Chris Bell basically left the band after the first of those. Some accounts suggest that Bell couldn’t accept the band’s lack of success. Bell developed problems with drugs and alcohol. (He once attempted to erase the tapes of Big Star’s first record at Ardent Studios.) Bell’s brother David traveled with him to Europe, in hopes of gaining a recording contract for him there. But that didn’t happen. He became a devout Christian. Back in Memphis, Bell worked at his parents’ restaurant and continued writing and recording, though he was still under a cloud of depression. Bell was evidently driving back from rehearsal one winter night when he struck a telephone pole and died at the age of 27.
Elsewhere Big Star fanatics will find more suggestions about the significance of Bell’s homosexuality and the possibility of Bell’s death being a suicide. (This 2010 essay by the great John Jeremiah Sullivan in the Oxford American is an excellent place to start.) The release of a single of Bell’s post-Big Star material, a majestic song called “I Am the Cosmos,” evidently pleased him. After his death other tracks were cobbled together to make a solo album by the same name.
Very much of Nothing Can Hurt Me is, in the end, about Chris Bell. But one suspects that an entire film could be devoted to him. And the same is true of Alex Chilton, who normally receives most of the attention focused on Big Star. Chilton, who died of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 2010, was an equally complicated and fascinating figure. A songwriter and performer who spanned the Summer of Love and the punk revolution and beyond. (I would have liked it if the film could have offered a little more information about the breakup Chilton and his girlfriend that evidently inspired much of Big Star’s final record.) He was happy to continue remaking himself, and thumbing his nose at his semi-glorified past. As rocker and rock writer Lenny Kaye puts it, Chilton “made his own way and escaped his many incarnations.” After Big Star fizzled out Chilton performed some with Memphis art-damage provocateur Tav Falco. He produced the legendary rockabilly ghoul punks the Cramps. He went to New York City and played at CBGBs, embracing punk’s anger and general fuck-off attitude. He didn’t seem to ever do anything that he didn’t want to do, and that’s why most who knew him were surprised when he decided to reform Big Star in 1993 with members of the band the Posies.
As several musicians and writers point out in the film, Big Star star — perhaps even more now in retrospect than in the original period — seems like a band that existed independent of trends, scenes and cultural centers. They seem like a band that didn’t have peers. “They really were kind of on their own island,” says Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips.
British psychedelic pop revivalist Robyn Hitchcock puts it another way, talking about the time-lag effect of the band’s fame and influence. “To me,” says Hitchcock, “Big Star were like letters posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985.”