The greatest band to never make it big

Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me explores Big Star’s career and influence, as well as their failed commercial success.

Big Star

With their documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, first-time filmmakers Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori take on the poignant story of the greatest band to never make it big.

For those who don’t know them — and it always surprises me that to this day, some otherwise hip individuals haven’t heard of Big Star — they were a Memphis rock band in the early ’70s whose melodic but melancholy tunes inspired generations of musicians, but whose commercial career was plagued by chronic bad luck and self-sabotage.

The band’s unique sound was crafted by Alex Chilton, who’d already ascended to pop stardom as a teenager with the Box Tops before abruptly quitting in anger, and Chris Bell, a moody and tormented singer-songwriter. It’s hard to place their music properly. A couple of people in the doc cautiously, hesitantly compare them to the Beatles — the comparison is not quite right for a few reasons, but both bands were unique in taking pop music to its highest heights, filling the listener with the feeling of “how did anyone create songs this amazing?”

But with Big Star, it’s impossible to separate the feeling of their music and lyrics — alternately joyful and profoundly sad — with the tragedy of their career. Their first album was poorly promoted, the second aborted in its distribution when the label went bankrupt. (Oddly, though the doc goes into the first two albums’ distribution woes in detail, it skips over the even stranger release history of the third, a fractured and disturbing emotional breakdown on tape which was only available as a semi-legit release for years.)

The doc details the lost years of both Bell (whose personal decline is utterly heartbreaking) and Chilton. The latter, who was notoriously press-averse, leading to a dearth of interview material, is captured in some memorable live footage from his flirtation with punk. In one clip from a regional Southern TV show, Chilton — bloated, grinning dementedly and introduced as “Axel Chitlin”— turns up as back-up guitarist with performance-art rockers Tav Falco and the Panther Burns. It’s a testament both to his musical adventurousness and to how far he wanted to distance himself from his musical roots.

Big Star stayed on the radar, first as critical darlings — partly, as the doc shows, thanks to a clever promoter who organized a 1973 rock critics’ conference in Memphis, then booked Big Star as the entertainment — and later when ’80s alternative bands such as R.E.M. and the Replacements began shouting them out. Eventually, all the love led to a happy (or at least bittersweet) ending when the surviving members reunited to tour the hipster nostalgia circuit.

The doc’s deeply researched footage, and the filmmakers’ thoughtful consideration of the local community from which the band emerged, makes it a valuable document for fans and for the historical record. For anyone unfamiliar with Big Star, it’s a nice introduction to their beautiful music, but also a sobering reminder that being artistically brilliant simply isn’t enough, and of how fundamentally unfair the music business — and life — can be. As it is with Big Star’s music, whether you focus on the bummer or the beauty probably depends on your own mood. ■

You can check out Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, followed by live performances by Elephant Stone, the Big Star All Star Tribute Band and Mécanik Synthétik at la Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent) on Saturday, July 13, 8 p.m., $15


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