Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Big Star had one of the biggest chasms between commercial success and critical praise, and because of that, they have become underground legends. While their music really should have appealed on a larger scale (I’m not sure why they couldn’t have seen the same success as power-pop brethren Cheap Trick), they certainly – like Velvet Underground – have their influence shown in how many bands they inspired, including R.E.M., The Replacements, Wilco, and Teenage Fanclub. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me came out in 2012, but can be easily accessed on Netflix, and the documentary makes a strong case as to why they should have been bigger and why they weren’t bigger.
Arguably the most obnoxious portion of the film is its opening, where it covers their humorously-titled first album #1 Record and followup Radio City. The problem with this portion of the documentary is not that these albums aren’t great or interesting; it’s that they spend the coverage of both albums filled with commentary from self-congratulatory music critics, talking about how brilliant Big Star’s music was and why they couldn’t understand why the public didn’t get it. It’s the sort of elitism and egotism that drives people crazy about critics, and one reason I don’t always like writing about music.
Once you get past that portion, the documentary and the lives of members of Big Star really got interesting. Chris Bell, really half of the creative brainpower of the band, never got the credit for how important he was to the band, since co-lead singer/songwriter Alex Chilton was charismatic and already known for his #1 hit “The Letter” with the Box Tops. Bell dives into drugs, becomes born again, releases a few pieces of brilliant music, and then dies in a tragic car accident at 27, that infamous age when we have lost so many music legends too soon. Chilton himself becomes estranged in an up-and-down relationship, leaves the band, forms a love of punk and performance art, and then finally comes full circle playing with the band again before passing in 2010. Bell and Chilton have a similar dichotomy to McCartney and Lennon, only if McCartney was the one that passed too soon and got the recognition of Ringo.
Beyond the fascinating life stories, the film and those talking about Big Star’s music truly understand the essence of their music and arc the film around that narrative: “pain transformed into beauty.” The film ebbs and flows nicely, changing moods decisively yet smoothly, and is produced very skillfully. The film also captures the musical heritage Big Star adopted being from Memphis, recognizing how they both fit in and stuck out in the Memphis tradition. The film wraps nicely focusing on the primary players Big Star has influenced like Teenage Fanclub and R.E.M., and ending with an eye on Bell and Chilton’s legacy.
It’s a well done documentary that is easy to get at (on Netflix) and worth watching for pop music fans, fans of music history, or people who are fans of any of their disciples.