Big Star’s 1972 debut, “#1 Record,” did not turn the Memphis quartet into what their name implies; the album didn’t even come close to charting at the position that its title suggests. They would, however, eventually influence the next generation of alternative rock music, but this initial burst of self-imposed tragic and comic irony would go on to haunt the band. Director Drew DeNicola wanted to get away from this disparity when making the new documentary, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
But it’s something that Drew DeNicola wanted to get away from when making the new documentary, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
“I think what I’m wanting to come across in the film is that it wasn’t even in the DNA of the band. It wasn’t even in that music for it to be successful at that time,” says the director. “That’s what makes it the story that it is. It really needed to mature. They needed to have this resurgence. The sensibility of these guys wasn’t a commercial one, even if they thought so. The Big Star name was slightly tongue-in-cheek.”
Tongue-in-cheek or not, Big Star were perpetually in the right place at the wrong time. They played the type of guitar pop that earned them comparisons to The Beatles at a time when the biggest bands were inflated and gimmicky (think: KISS or ELO). They got a record deal on the prestigious Stax label, which went bankrupt before their second album could leave the warehouses. They had a distribution deal with the Columbia label, just as president Clive Davis was fired. Founders exited the band in frustration with one, Chris Bell, dying in a car crash at the age of 27, before his band achieved posthumous popularity.
“Nothing Can Hurt Me” chronicles the band during their brief and bright existence as well as the bizarre aftermath of solo careers and ambivalent reunions. Through interviews, old photographs and a very limited amount of moving footage, DeNicola and co-director Olivia Mori wring out a sweet story of the participants who tried so hard to make it work for the Memphis band.
“I don’t like to dwell on the whole element of ‘They didn’t make it.’” says DeNicola. “I’d just like to dispense with that and talk about the story of the people in the band and the music.”
Feels like the 'Third' time
As Big Star rode this spiral of misfortune down, their music got weirder and weirder, culminating in an artsy off-kilter masterpiece called "Third." Band leader Alex Chilton pulled stunts like inviting a homeless man into the studio to sing background vocals and erasing drum tracks and replacing them with the sound of a deflated basketball. Drummer Jody Stephens says that even though it was challenging to record their swan song, it was an honor just to work in the studio with Chilton, who as further tragic twist would have it, died in 2010, before he could see his band's story committed to documentary.
"The 'Third' album is such a brilliant reflection of where Alex was in terms of lifestyle and where he was emotionally," says Stephens today. "Given that, if there had been commercial success, it could have taken Alex somewhere else and produced a different kind of record, because I think Big Star’s records always reflected where the writers were in the moment in their lives or maybe a yearning for something."