Big Star doc tells tale of influential power pop legends

Big Star PhotoFive years ago, I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I found out Alex Chilton was playing a summer music festival in my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. I’d read all the stories about how reclusive the former Box Tops and Big Star front man had become, how repulsed he was by the machinations of the music industry and how he seemed intent on sabotaging his own career, so of course I had to go see him perform.

This would be a rare Chilton sighting, and it turned out to be memorable. Armed with a hollow-body Gibson electric guitar, Chilton was a human jukebox with a complete mastery of popular music, from rock to pop and blues to soul. I’m not sure many of the couple of hundred people standing around watching Chilton on a side stage even knew who he was or what he was all about. But a few did.

“Play some Big Star,” someone yelled.

The request fell on deaf ears. Chilton never even mentioned Big Star, and he played only one song from the band’s classic three early-’70s albums.

“Here’s a song from That ’70s Show,” Chilton said, before launching into a rousing rendition of “In the Street,” which, covered by Cheap Trick, played over the period sitcom’s opening credits.

What made Chilton so reluctant to talk about his old band? The answer to that question and many others can be found in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, an excellent new documentary that tells the story of a band that was as star-crossed as it was influential. The film will make its way around the country beginning July 3. MES’ screening at the Barking Legs Theater in Chattanooga is set for Aug. 10.

There may be more tragic stories in the history of rock and roll—Badfinger comes quickly to mind—but Big Star is a member of an exclusive club of artists whose talent couldn’t overcome their lack of good fortune. Everything that could go wrong to prevent Chilton and bandmates Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens from turning their awe-inspiring body of work into fame and fortune did go wrong, leaving them disappointed, disillusioned and bitter.

As any good documentary does, Nothing Can Hurt Me serves as a primer to the uninitiated, but it’s also informative even to the enlightened.

Filmmakers Drew DeNicola, Danielle McCarthy and Olivia Mori faced a difficult task. A Big Star film had been talked about for years, as in, why hadn’t anyone attempted one? But there were at least three significant obstacles to overcome.

First, as my story above illustrates, Chilton wouldn’t talk about Big Star in the latter stages of his life, and when he died in 2010, his memories were forever lost. Second, founding member Bell died in a 1978 car crash. Third, because the band didn’t play live all that much, there was next to no performance video available.

To clear those hurdles, the filmmakers called on every available resource. They cobbled together as many recorded interviews of Chilton as they could find. Bell’s family, notably older brother David, generously provided photographs and agreed to be interviewed. And if Chilton wasn’t willing to revisit his Big Star days, plenty of principle characters in the band’s inner circle were, from Ardent Studio founder John Fry, who eventually joined the project as an executive producer, to legendary record producer Jim Dickinson.

Stephens, who still works for Ardent, provided much-needed back story, and Hummel, before his death in 2010, also offered invaluable recollections of Big Star’s early days and his friendship with the talented but troubled Bell.

As far as those enlightening moments for Big Star fans? There were several, but two stood out to me:

• Bell left the band after its stunning debut album, No. 1 Record, in part because Chilton, the front man for the Box Tops at age 16, was commanding what Bell thought was a disproportionate amount of press coverage. But as Chilton had tried to point out in the few interviews he gave about Big Star, there was no feud between the two.

It was Chilton who helped a frustrated Bell, who had relentlessly shopped his music in the U.S. and Europe to no avail, get his song, “I Am the Cosmos,” released. And Chilton produced and provided background vocals on Bell’s haunting, beautiful “You and Your Sister,” proving beyond doubt that Big Star wasn’t just an Alex Chilton vehicle. If Big Star was the American Beatles, as many devoted fans claim, Bell was McCartney to Chilton’s Lennon.

• As Nothing Can Hurt Me ultimately tells us, the band’s purpose, its reason for being, had nothing to do with fame and fortune, or advancing the careers of its members. Big Star’s mission—unbeknownst to them at the time—was nothing less than to save rock and roll, to ensure it didn’t become bound in bombast and mediocrity, by influencing untold numbers of bands—R.E.M., the Replacements, the Bangles and Wilco among them—for decades to come.

Alex Chilton and Chris Bell can’t speak to that now, but Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Us helps us surmise that, given the choice between being rich or becoming a legend, both would have chosen the latter.

“Now we’re gonna talk about a band I used to play with,” Chilton said in a radio interview that begins the film, “that, um, changed a lot of people’s heads.”