• Magnolia Pictures
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
(Drew DeNicola, US, 120 mins.)

I became intrigued when I first found out that someone was making a film about Big Star, but I'd never heard of the director, and I've been burned by enough music documentaries that I've learned to keep my expectations in check. Fortunately, Drew DeNicola does the Memphis power-pop band justice.

Since mercurial singer-songwriter Alex Chilton declined to participate, producer Jim Dickinson steps in to talk about his days as teenage front man for the Box Tops, who scored a hit with 1967's "The Letter" (though Dickinson passed away in 2009, his wife, Mary, speaks to his legacy). Despite the fact that it begins and ends with him, some observers have complained that there isn't enough Chilton in the documentary, but DeNicola has unearthed enough archival material, including a relaxed radio interview, that his perspective isn't left out of the narrative.

Alex Chilton
  • Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
  • Alex Chilton

After he left the Box Tops in 1970, Chilton joined Chris Bell (vocals, guitar), Andy Hummel (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums) in Big Star, who took their ironic name from a grocery store chain. By recording at Ardent Studios, they secured a label contract when Ardent became a Stax subsidiary, but sales of their debut, #1 Record, weren't forthcoming, partly because the band's introspective sound was out of step with the times—even if they could rock as hard as any of their peers.

Bell, who was already having a hard time sharing the spotlight with Chilton, took it so poorly that he left to pursue a solo career, which only compounded his problems. In retrospect, it's too bad he couldn't hang on longer, not because he didn't have the talent to make music on his own, but because he didn't have enough of a name to get any labels to take notice, despite the best efforts of Chris Stamey, who released the "I Am the Cosmos"/"You and Your Sister" single, and Bell's brother, David, the Theo to his Vincent Van Gogh: loyal supporter no matter how bad things got. And they got bad, culminating in Bell's death in 1978.

The remaining three members recorded Radio City, which also garnered rave reviews and disappointing sales, largely due to the collapse of Stax, so Chilton recorded a final album, Third/Sister Lovers. Despite the participation of Dickinson and Stephens, it's a solo album in all but name. This may seem trivial, but DeNicola neglects to cite This Mortal Coil's covers of "You and Your Sister" and Third's "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust" (I heard these versions before I heard the originals).

The filmmaker proceeds to Chilton's career as a solo artist and producer, focusing on the Cramps and Tav Falco's Panther Burns, which is great, but I wish he'd also mentioned his work with the Gories. Though the film starts to become a Chilton profile at this point, the man's achievements justify the screen time as he embraced punk and moved ever farther away from his origins as a pop performer.

Chris Bell
  • Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
  • Chris Bell

The film ends with the rediscovery of Big Star, which reached a fever pitch in the 1980s as R.E.M., the Replacements, and others sang their praises. Though Chilton initially had little interest in revisiting his past, a one-off gig in the 1990s with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies led to a full-fledged revival.

If anything, this part of the documentary doesn't carry the emotional weight that it should, because it's hard to tell where Chilton found his motivation. There's no reason to believe that several goals can't coexist, including the need to make money, but more insight into this unforeseen development would've been ideal.

If Chilton's passing, which occurred during filming, caught many by surprise, he lived long enough to receive the credit he deserved for three of the finest records of the 1970s. Sadly, Hummel would pass away only four months later, making De Nicola's film an even more valuable document than he could have ever possibly intended, though the real tragedy here doesn't lie with Big Star, but with Bell, who never really found his place in the world, neither in the band or outside of it.

Magnolia releases Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (DVD and Blu-ray) on Nov 26.