Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Not long ago on Twitter, which is pretty much the world’s best place to scope out NSFW porn starlet selfies and jump into silly boy slap parties with undersexed nerds about topics of face-numbing meaninglessness, a friend shared a thought. “Is that shitty Replacements documentary the non-fiction film equivalent of a summer superhero movie?” I paraphrase, of course, and my pal, a fine, upstanding maker of movies about real people doing real things, was exaggerating a bit, but the point wasn’t an irrelevant provocation.

Music documentaries have become a kind of surefire audience-pleaser not unlike the pre-sold comic book franchises that generate so much marketing hoopla and sell so much popcorn every summer. Sooner or later, every great and crappy band in existence will be the subject of a soul-searching cinematic journey to the center of the groovy.

They’re dandy things to program at places like the Sundance Film Festival, where gen-yoo-wine rock stars like Dave Grohl or chronologically conflicted ones like LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy come to promote their movies in actual movie palaces, generating a flurry of media buzz for products that are destined for speedy delivery to digital platforms across suburbia.

If you sell a gallon of blood or sperm every month, you can probably afford to access Showtime, which has had an epic two-part, three-hour doc, The History of the Eagles, in rotation. That, too, premiered at Sundance this year, along with Grohl’s Sound City and Muscle Shoals, another doc about a famous recording studio, and the wonderful 20 Feet from Stardom, a revealing saga about the secret lives of almost-famous backup singers like Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, great vocal artists who have forever stood in the shadows of Mick, Rod and Sting over the decades – black women bolstering the fame of white men, yet also liberated by rock ’n’ roll to be their true artistic selves in many regards, more “black,” more loud and more proud. The issues raised are as fascinating as the backstage confessions. Those tales told out of school also give the Eagles doc some of its indulgent appeal. Mostly, we learn what schmucks Glenn Frey and Don Henley were (are?). But, did anyone not know that? The early stuff about Los Angeles in the late 1960s, the Troubadour scene, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt, the peyote trip that occasioned the Henry Diltz photo session in Joshua Tree for the band’s debut album cover – all of it is so much more interesting than the Eagles themselves that I didn’t even bother watching the 45-minute “Part Two.”

Much better, perhaps, for cinema’s sake to have never tasted fame of any sort, to have had magical, essential genius obscured by youthful hubris, bad marketing, record executive indifference, mysterious emotional or psychological demons, that fickle bitch the zeitgeist and, especially, the tragic and premature death of the core creative figure that conceived the whole thing.

Not that you’d wish it on anyone, of course. But those elements make for a hell of a good story – much of it told in the remarkable documentary A Band Called Death. An even stranger Motor City music saga than last year’s Searching for Sugar Man, the story of how the Detroit rock band Death vaulted from early 1970s obscurity to cult-hero acclaim 40 years later is at once phenomenal and wildly emotional. It is an uncanny tale of a family legacy fulfilled through a fraternal bond stronger than, indeed, death. The charismatic brothers Bobby and Dannis Hackney outlived their visionary sibling David, whose radical concepts powered the group to the cusp of a breakthrough that never happened – until the music was discovered by a cabal of latter-day record collectors and bloggers, including the musicians’ own college-student sons. The movie is as much about brotherhood abiding against all odds as the quirks of the music business, which wasn’t ready for an African-American punk band in 1973.

But that’s not even the half the drama of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Contrary to its name, the Memphis band Big Star never sold many records during its brief career in the 1970s. Yet, its sophisticated and bittersweet pop songs have influenced several generations of musicians, who continually revive them in letter and spirit. Filtering the Beatles and other avatars of the British Invasion through the weird aesthetic moonshine still that was Memphis, the band wound up becoming its own source of enduring pop inspiration. Basically, every alternative-rock act of the 1980s and ‘90s owes the group a debt, having tapped into the timeless jangle and ache of songs like “September Gurls” and “Thirteen.” Much like the Velvet Underground a generation before, they didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one started a band.

“Almost no one experienced Big Star first hand,” said Drew DeNicola, a Brooklyn-based director who made the documentary with a team that included co-director Olivia Mori and producer Danielle McCarthy, manager of publicity and marketing for Magnolia Pictures.  “They listened to them in their bedroom alone and imposed their ideas on it and that’s what I find interesting.”

But the film focuses more deeply on the complicated, eccentric and inspired personalities in and around the Memphis scene that spawned the group, which was fronted by Alex Chilton – by 1971, a former teen pop star who had a number one hit singing “The Letter” for the Box Tops – and Chris Bell, often characterized as a tortured genius, struggling with personal demons that included a sexuality that may have sat uneasily with his strongly professed Christian faith. That image was sealed by his death in a 1978 car accident at the young age of 27, distraught that his music had then gone mostly unheard despite national critical acclaim.

“I got so sick of asking ‘Why didn’t the records sell?’ Who cares?,” said DeNicola, who became less interested in the typical behind-the-music format as the film developed. “I just wanted to feel it and experience it and listen to some music. We started shedding facts.”

While orchestrating an impressive parade of archival clips and obscure interviews, the film lays the groundwork for how an underground pop phenomenon was encouraged by unique factors: the lowering of the legal drinking age to 18, and the support of recording engineer John Fry, whose Ardent Studios became the band’s clubhouse – a kind of Deep South answer to The Beatles’ Abbey Road.

The filmmakers also embrace the often gonzo spirit of its subjects, abiding with such key figures as the late record producer Jim Dickinson and the photographer William Eggleston, who favors the camera with some solo classical piano and sotto voce comments that require subtitles. Even Lester Bangs, that ol’ dirty bastard, has a cameo, reflecting on the insanity of the first-ever rock critic convention hosted by Ardent in Memphis as a promotional stunt for Big Star’s debut. The footage of the band playing for an audience of blind-drunk rock scribes (imported from New York, Los Angeles and, natch, Detroit, home of CREEM magazine) is unexpectedly thrilling, like witnessing an old cave painting come to life. Once were warriors! There are plenty of other obscure treats, wrapped in grainy black-and-white and studio camera smear, including a demented local talk show appearance by Chilton-protege Panther Burns that must be seen.

“Drew and I went down every rabbit hole with every single person that we interviewed,” Mori said.  “Everyone was one degree of separation away from Elvis. You got involved in two-hour conversations with these larger than life characters who could only come from Memphis. They’re just badasses.”

Before signing onto the project, Mori took time to learn much of the Big Star songbook, suggesting ways in which the group’s songs could be at once indelibly hummable yet imbued with tricky, idiosyncratic nuance. “Like ‘The Ballad of El Goodo.’ It’s a really weird song to play. Just by knowing that song you’d think it was a simple straightforward folk song. The chord changes are so quick. Normally, you don’t change the chord on the beat, you hold onto a chord for at least two beats. During the chorus it’s changing right on the beat. It’s really unusual. Rock and roll is simple music. Big Star music is so not that.”

The film’s evocation of a wild era brought back memories for Jody Stephens, Big Star’s drummer and its only surviving founding member, with the deaths of Chilton and bassist Andy Hummell in 2010. “The ‘70s were pretty amazing, especially here in Memphis,” said Stephens, who has been making the rounds of various film-related tribute concerts. “It’s sad and melancholy, too, but it’s OK to feel that. That was a good time and it’s nice to have a glimpse of that.”

Big Star fans are likely to share that deeper emotional perspective. While leaving most speculation to the audience, the filmmakers explore the psychic woes that befell both Chilton and Bell, whose solo album I Am the Cosmos achieved posthumous cult status. “He was the smartest guy in the room and that’s a lonely place to be in Memphis,” DeNicola said of Bell, whose personal conflicts and painfully thwarted ambitions made him a fascinating and compelling figure – if also misunderstood. “He was really funny. He had these two sides to him.”

Bell also, if briefly, was the ideal balance for Chilton. “One of them is imbuing banal lyrics with intense emotion and the other is being really thinky about it,” DeNicola said, “and if you can marry those you’ve really got something.”