In the new film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, about the legendary Seventies Memphis rock group, writer Ross Johnson sums up the story of Big Star as “pain transformed into beauty.” Throughout their history, Big Star never achieved commercial or mainstream success despite reaping widespread acclaim from music journalists. The band also had their share of tragedy, beginning with the death of singer-guitarist Chris Bell in 1978, and later with the passing of singer/guitarist Alex Chilton and bassist Andy Hummel in 2010. Yet Big Star influenced a broad range of rock groups, including R.E.M., the Posies, the Replacements and Teenage Fanclub, and their first three records (#1 Record, Radio City, Third/Sister Lovers) all appear on Rolling Stone‘s all-time best albums list.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which will have its nationwide theatrical release July 3rd in New York, traces the band’s history and music through interviews with surviving drummer Jody Stephens, producer and Ardent Studios founder John Fry, colleagues and music journalists. Coinciding with the film’s release is an upcoming concert, Big Star’s Third, at New York’s Central Park on June 30th highlighting the music from the band’s dark yet masterful third album. That show will feature a band consisting of Stephens, Mike Mills, Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter accompanied by guests Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, Marshall Crenshaw, Pete Yorn and Richard Lloyd.
“I think the film’s wonderful,” Stephens tells Rolling Stone of the documentary, which was directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori. “I think it’s a pretty interesting story. We were a band for four years and we recorded three records, and losing a member after each record – so we were down to Alex and me. And then we broke up and and let it sit for 17-18 years, and got back together because there was an audience that developed over that period of time. I think [the filmmakers] did a great job of telling the story.”
The idea behind Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me began several years ago when Danielle McCarthy, the film’s executive producer, was in Memphis hanging out with Winston Eggleston, the son of photographer William Eggleston, an acquaintance of the band. It led McCarthy to meet with Stephens, Fry and other people from Big Star’s past. “As far as me and Drew,” says Mori, “both of us were huge fans of the band. Myself, Drew and Danielle are all about the same age . . . and I feel like we’re exactly the generation when the double CD [#1 Record/Radio City] came out in the Nineties. That was huge amongst any college music fan.”
Mori also says there was a lot of mystery that surrounded Big Star despite the fact that people knew the records. “The story had such a wide scope, and that’s what we realized when we got to Memphis,” she says. “It’s not just the story of just this band. It was more like, how did these three records come about? I think it had to do with the place – Memphis was sort of the key element – and then this special group of people that all worked together in this time and place at the same time.”
To the likely delight of longtime fans, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me contains archival film of the original quartet together. “The footage that was taken at Alex’s parents’ living room where we were set up for rehearsal gives you an idea of how bands adapt to environments and parents adapt to having children in bands,” says Stephens. “That part of it was fun, because the four of us were together. I just enjoyed being a part of what the three other guys were doing.”
Despite having crafted such catchy and eloquent rock music, Big Star was stymied by a lack of commercial success, compounded by the bankruptcy of Stax Records, which distributed the band’s albums. “The whole record business grew large,” says Mori. “That was definitely something that we were being reminded of – especially when we started talking to the critics about where music was at the time. And that was part of why they all loved the Big Star album [#1 Record] so much.”
Undoubtedly one of the most moving aspects of the documentary is the story of Chris Bell, who left the band following the commercial disappointment of #1 Record; despite a brilliant single in “I Am the Cosmos,” Bell’s solo career frustratingly never got off the ground. He died on December 27th, 1978 in a car accident, at the age of 27.
“Chris was an incredibly passionate person about what he was doing, about his music,” Stephens remembers. “He would spend hours in the studio perfecting a guitar lead . . . He would spend hours on how he would deliver a vocal performance for a particular a song. You know, #1 Record comes out, and the press in general really likes the record and they focus on Alex. They do know who Alex Chilton is, or at least his [earlier] band the Box Tops. So the press would naturally focus on Alex, and I think Chris felt like he was living in-the-shadow-of. It had nothing to do with his interaction with Alex or anything – it was, I guess, Chris’ perception of how this thing might be moving forward. It really was tragic what happened.”
The movie also shows Chilton’s post-Big Star life, which included his punk rock period from his collaborations with the Cramps and the Panther Burns. “I think following Alex’s career trajectory was just a really fun part of the research for me,” says DeNicola. “I really grew to enjoy all his phases. He was always changing, but within the shadow of this Big Star thing, which wouldn’t go away. I loved that he was hounded by the myth of Big Star for all his life.”
In the early Nineties, Chilton and Stephens reformed Big Star with the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. That incarnation of the band performed together for nearly 20 years, until Chilton’s death prior to Big Star’s scheduled performance at South by Southwest. “When we were going to [SXSW], the plan was to shoot fans and have people talk about Big Star,” says DeNicola. “And the [subsequent tribute] show that came out of that was kind of amazing, because it showed how much a part of that whole scene Big Star was. So it was nice to hear this star-studded tribute, and the quality was pretty high, considering it was thrown together that day.”
Since Chilton’s passing, the band’s music has been paid tribute onstage through the Big Star’s Third concerts. Some of the artists who have performed in that project included Michael Stipe, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Tift Merritt and Yo La Tengo‘s Ira Kaplan. Stephens says he is surprised and grateful that people are still talking about Big Star after all these years.
“I loved that music,” he says, “and I loved the relationships that come along with that, playing that music. I feel pretty lucky to have all these opportunities to join with these other people and to play some great music.”
“If you want to postulate some theory about Big Star being the godfathers of indie rock or alternative music, I’m not gonna do that,” DeNicola says. “I think what you get out of Big Star and where they become an icon in that story is that they were forced to be outsiders. They were forced to be in musical limbo. That wasn’t the plan, but once they found that place, they thrived.”