When Paul Westerberg sang, "I never travel far, without a little Big Star," in the Replacements' 1987 anthem "Alex Chilton," he unintentionally underscored the hard-luck status of Big Star. That 1970s Memphis rock band had always been more praised by musicians and critics than loved by the masses. Considerably less talented than Big Star, the Replacements sold way more records than their heroes did. Same goes for R.E.M., Wilco, and other groups inspired by Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens—Big Star's first and best incarnation.
A documentary as great as Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me ought to launch its subjects out of the cult status in which they've dwelled for nearly four decades. (That '70s Show's use of "In the Street" didn't quite do the trick.) The directors gather a hall-of-fame wing of musicians to hail the band's virtues, provide crucial in-the-studio footage and remembrances from Ardent Studios' engineers (including the legendary Jim Dickinson), and offer key input from journalists and the family of Chris Bell, Big Star's most tragic, conflicted figure, who died at 27 after crashing his car into a utility pole.
One of the film's biggest revelations is that Ardent, Big Star's label, flew more than 100 influential music journalists to Memphis in 1973 for the first annual Rock Writers of the World Convention. (So absurd in hindsight.) Big Star proceeded to blow minds there, but all of this effort was for naught because Stax—Ardent's parent company—went bankrupt and halted distribution of the band's classic second album, Radio City. A problematic, sporadically brilliant third album was delayed and misunderstood, and Big Star dissolved in 1974. Chilton resurrected the group in 1993 with Stephens and two members of the Posies; he kept it going until he died right before a scheduled SXSW appearance in 2010. So beloved was Chilton that a pickup unit of high-profile musicians quickly assembled for a tribute concert.
Big Star's music had the rare ability to capture both the most glorious highs and the most miserable lows in timeless, gorgeous melodies and poignant lyrics. Their main songwriters—Chilton and Bell—were too mercurial to last long together, but the sparks they created in their brief union made them something like a Southern American Beatles for sensitive souls.
This article has been updated since its original publication.