Tuesday, August 6, 2013


I know that BIG STAR, the critically-acclaimed and posthumously-loved Memphis band of the early 70s, didn't really start finding any semblance of an audience until the mid-1980s - as this new documentary about them, "BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME", makes clear. Although I was a massive underground teenage and then twentysomething rocknroll fan throughout the 80s, I never actually "discovered" the band myself until 1993, while touring with the band Claw Hammer as road manager. They had a tape of "Radio City", the band's second album, which we listened to frequently across North America. I was awestruck by the thing. Every song was phenomenal; the sequencing was perfect; Alex Chilton's voice was both angelic & Southern rocknroll god at the same time; and I couldn't get over that rough-hewn but clean guitar sound on tracks like "September Gurls" and "Mod Lang". I've subsequently called "September Gurls" the single greatest song of the 70s, and I think I can still stand behind that assertion.

My problem in the 80s was apparently the same problem they were having in the 70s - they weren't "heavy" enough for me (or their era); that, and some pretty stupendous bad timing and record distribution problems, helped ensure that their three excellent records never found a true audience until long after they'd packed it in. "NOTHING CAN HURT ME" is your pretty standard music documentary, well-told and extremely interesting to me (as a fan); it's hard to say how compelling it would be for the non-fan. There are no drug nor drinking tales, save for a few quick party shots from a William Eggleston film from 70s Memphis called "Stranded in Canton" that I need to see. (And who knew that the #1 party spot in Memphis back then was the original T.G.I. Fridays?). The sad tale of founder and first-album guitarist Chris Bell is threaded throughout the film, with interviews with his surviving siblings and loads of photographs of a pensive and moody-looking Bell shown over and over again. I have a better appreciation for him now than I did previously; it's clear that he showed Alex Chilton a great deal in terms of sound structure, production and "feel". It's also a huge tribute to Chilton and bandmates Jody Stephens and Alex Hummel that they actually improved upon Bell's formula for that second record, "Radio City". It truly is a goddamn crime that this record is still unknown to too many people.

One of the great weirdo mysteries of rock and roll is Alex Chilton, post-Big Star. He went from near-perfection and studio mastery in Big Star to a ramshackle, half-baked and totally bewitchingly cool solo career in the late 70s, where he played like a man who didn't give two shits about anyone or anything. The footage of him playing with Tav Falco's Panther Burns on Memphis morning TV is priceless, along with some early Cramps studio footage (Chilton presciently embraced and produced the band); I wish they'd spent a little bit more time on "Like Flies on Sherbert", his crude and slipshod 1979 album that is a stone classic for some and a complete disaster to others. But hey, it's a Big Star movie, not a Chilton film, and unfortunately, it was made after he passed away in 2010.

We do get to see many interviews with survivors from the early Memphis 70s, including both Stephens and Hummel (who died while the film was being made) and various producers, studio heads, rock critics and promoters who were baffled by the band's lack of commercial success. It's a good yarn, truly. It follows rock-doc form and function quite well without dipping into cheap sentimentality nor shocking band antics; I very much admire the respect paid to the musicians and the music by directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori. And with a rousing "outro" of "September Gurls" included as the credits roll, you really can't go wrong.