Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2013)
Dir. Drew DeNicola

3.5 out of 5

For anyone who experiences great success in the entertainment business, there are dozens - hundreds - whose hopes are dashed by cruel ironies.  Case in point: Big Star, the Memphis power-pop group that finally achieved the popularity it sought long after it ceased to be a going concern.  Big Star recorded a trio of albums that drew unanimous critical praise in the 1970s (all three later wound up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time) but failed to connect commercially; the band’s stripped-down instrumentation, lush Beatles-esque harmonies, and melancholic lyrics seemed out of place in a decade when rock stars were expected to strike the posture of swaggering, hedonistic demi-gods.  According to Drew DeNicola’s nostalgic documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Big Star was simply ahead of its time: their music influenced the introspective romantics of the 1980s and early 1990s “alternative rock” boom and helped shape the sound of modern indie music.  Singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock puts it best in the film: the music of Big Star “was like a letter posted in 1971 but not received until 1985.  It just got lost in the mail."

Apart from the requisite back-patting, though, Nothing Can Hurt Me is an examination of the difficult, sometimes tragic journey from underperforming critical darling to ex post facto cult favorite.  The artistic brainchild of Alex Chilton (who in 1967, at the age of 16, had already scored a number one hit with “The Letter” while fronting The Box Tops) and his Memphis rock scene contemporary Chris Bell, Big Star had a brief, promising career that was as snakebitten as they come.  The film pins some of the blame on the band’s label, Stax Records, which was trying to launch a rock music imprint while experiencing severe financial problems.  In many cases, sympathetic DJs found it impossible to acquire copies of the band’s first two albums, #1 Record and Radio City due to poor distribution.  Problems also came from within:  suffering from severe emotional distress after the failure of #1 Record, Bell quit the band while the remaining members - and their support team, colorfully rendered in candid interviews - continued to work and play as hard as the rock stars they were expected to become.

Nothing Can Hurt Me also must deal with the deaths of Bell and Chilton - the former in a 1978 car accident and the latter due to heart failure three years ago - placing it under the umbrella of myth-making “legacy" rock docs like Marley and Tupac: Resurrection.  Their absence likely explains why the film is short on creative insights about the songs apart from the hyperbolic hosannas of critics (Chilton does get to participate via audio of archived interviews).  DeNicola also doesn’t attempt to place the group or its music in a broader context, apart from the occasional sound bite from a musician influenced by Big Star and a humorous anecdote about a press junket that wooed rock critics by framing it as an attempt to organize a writers’ union.  What he does instead is construct an extensive personal biography that paints a portrait of a band that, despite its populist aspirations, could not help but follow its muse - particularly Chilton, who shook off the disappointment of Big Star with interesting forays into punk, art rock, and assorted avant-garde experiments.  It’s a soothing tribute does the band justice and, much like Big Star’s music, evokes a warm and bittersweet feeling that leaves the audience hopeful for the present while still longing for the clarity of the past.

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