In Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Yo La Tengo co-founder Ira Kaplan tries to explain why a Memphis rock ’n’ roll band that almost nobody heard when it was actively making records in the early 1970s went on to become so beloved by critics, pop scholars, and indie musicians (or in Kaplan’s case, all three). His take? It was hard for young music-lovers at that time to feel like they’d “discovered” Fleetwood Mac, but Big Star was a band fans could own.
The problem in assembling Nothing Can Hurt Me is that unlike Fleetwood Mac, Big Star never became big enough to leave behind the visual archive that a nearly two-hour bio-doc needs. Big Star only recorded three albums during its original run, and as frontman Alex Chilton explains in a radio interview excerpted in Nothing Can Hurt Me, the group really broke up after the first record, following the abrupt departure of co-founder Chris Bell. Bell is now dead, as are Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel, and Jim Dickinson, one of Big Star’s most significant producers. And while DeNicola and Mori still have lengthy interviews with Hummel and Dickinson to draw on, Chilton was never into talking to the press about his life or music. Outside of some rare archival footage and audio tapes, he doesn’t really speak for himself in the movie.
Because two of the most important Big Star voices aren’t available to weigh in on the band’s legacy, and because Bell and Chilton’s post-Big Star lives were tangles of ill-fated solo recordings and raging personal demons—all redeemed to some degree by Big Star becoming so influential in power-pop and alternative rock a decade after the break-up—Nothing Can Hurt Me is frustratingly unfocused, petering out considerably after its first hour. There are just too many threads to follow: the turbulence of the Memphis music scene from the Sun era to the Stax era, all of which affected Big Star’s chances as a national act; how the growing corruption of the rock ’n’ roll business in the 1970s screwed the band; Chilton’s journey from teen idol fronting The Box Tops in the 1960s to art-damaged, reclusive punk-rocker in the 1980s; how Bell recruited Chilton to co-lead his band and then was enraged that the national media attributed most of the first album to the better-known Chilton; and how the band became an unlikely cultural touchstone. The film tries to give all these stories roughly equal weight, even if that means following blind alleys, and shortchanging the parts of Big Star that are really important, such as how the band conceived and recorded three consecutive masterpieces: 1972’s #1 Record, 1974’s Radio City, and the belatedly released Third (a.k.a. Sister Lovers). Big Star newcomers may feel lost.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is a must for fans, though, because so much of Big Star’s story has been parceled out piecemeal over the years, in anecdotes and liner notes. DeNicola and Mori have interviews with pretty much every significant surviving employee of the band’s Memphis-based label, Ardent Records, along with rock critics from the era and a slew of the musicians later inspired by Big Star. Through them, Nothing Can Hurt Me describes how Memphis’ suddenly lax liquor laws contributed to the recording of the raucous Radio City; what Third had to do with a Memphis fine-arts scene (led by photographer William Eggleston) that fetishized decay; and how the isolation of Memphis kept the Ardent staff from understanding how Big Star’s albums could receive rave reviews, but not proper national distribution or airplay.
Best of all, Nothing Can Hurt Me brings more attention to the oft-forgotten Bell, the man most responsible for Big Star’s original sound of clean, Beatles-esque pop with an R&B beat and hard-rock guitars. Chilton’s emotional pain and twisted sense of beauty took over Big Star completely by the third LP, but he diverged from Bell’s vision. (That’s why Radio City is Big Star’s best record: It’s poised perfectly between the absent Bell’s version of the band and the more avant-garde places Chilton went on Third.) Nothing Can Hurt Me covers Bell’s struggles with drugs and his embrace of Christianity—both reportedly a byproduct of him fighting his homosexual urges—and how when Bell died in car crash in 1978, his work was so obscure that even the local papers referred to him as a “restauranteur’s son,” not the founder of one of the most important rock bands of the decade.
One of the big questions the film touches on—and could’ve gotten into more—is whether Bell’s story is a damned shame or a necessary component of the Big Star legend. The movie opens with accounts of an anarchic rock-critics’ convention that Ardent organized in Memphis in 1973, in part as a showcase for Big Star, and some of the writers who were there—including future Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye—talk about how the attendees fell in love with Big Star, but liked keeping the band to themselves rather than using their national forums to tout it. Kaye suggests that lack of material success is a necessity for great artists, forcing them to be more creative rather than trying to court a mass audience. The fruits of this can be seen in Big Star’s Third, on which Chilton shrugged off the whole notion of “radio-ready,” with thrilling results.
So while Nothing Can Hurt Me is too long and too shambling, maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe DeNicola and Mori weren’t trying to evangelize for Big Star, but were instead following in the footsteps of so many other folks who’ve helped make Big Star magnificent by not helping the band at all.