At some point, with the Velvet Underground having entered both mainstream culture and the Rock and Roll Hall of Lame, Memphis’s Big Star, a power pop outfit that recorded three albums in the early 1970s, became America’s greatest cult band. Hell, Lou Reed did that Honda Scooter commercial almost 30 years ago, so I’m calling it, official-like. Put simply, Big Star are the greatest band you’ve (probably) never heard of, but either way — whether you’re a time-tested devotee or a Big Star neophyte — there’s plenty to enjoy in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a lovingly-rendered film that documents the mysterious, seminal band’s “career.” It screens at SPACE Gallery this Thursday.
Longtime acolytes will be riveted by the revealing footage and interviews; music lovers unfamiliar with Big Star will be turned on by the undeniably great tunes. Even fans of rock and roll documentaries will be satisfied; if you liked 2008’s Anvil: the Story of Anvil, or are looking forward to this year’s A Band Called Death, then Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is right in your wheelhouse.
In the proverbial nutshell: Alex Chilton, former teenaged frontman of the Box Tops (“The Letter,” “Soul Deep,” “Neon Rainbow”) was an unemployed pop star. Chris Bell was a doomed recording studio nerd, an egotistical, delicate child of Memphis privilege, almost certainly gay. The two of them, working in the Lennon/McCartney mold, along with the Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens rhythm section, made three albums that received near-universal critical acclaim, despite their record company’s distribution problems. The glorious failures of those records, so hard to find for so long, spawned a rock and roll religion that has thrived in the shadows for decades. Big Star is the favorite band of a lot of people’s favorite bands, and a lot of those bands contribute to the movie: R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, and, of course, the Replacements, whose 1987 ode to Big Star’s frontman, Alex Chilton, was probably the decade’s coolest rock and roll namecheck.
A few years ago, novelist Jonathan Franzen contributed “rules for writers” to a magazine article collecting such guidelines. One of his bons-mots: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” There’s a rock and roll correlation. In days past, listeners wishing to progress beyond the sixty songs that AOR radio replays ad infinitum had to become hunters and gatherers, intrepid music seekers who networked and knew where to look. (When I was a Southern Maine kid, the best places were Kennebunk’s glorious Record Rendezvous, sadly closed, its floorspace eventually transformed into a zumba studio — yes, that zumba studio — and the also-defunct Rich’s Department Store, in Biddeford, which maintained a wicked bin of cut-out, remaindered albums in their record section.) Now, with even the most obscure, long-dead, and nearly forgotten musicians on iTunes, hunting down their work takes nothing; you can’t even call it hunting. And that’s fine. Bands aren’t merit badges. Music aficionados will just have to find new codes by which to recognize each other, and that’s fine, too.
If you care about rock and roll, or art, or the glorious art that rock and roll occasionally produces, Big Star’s story and songs will stir your emotions, perhaps bringing to mind a couplet from Thomas Gray’s most famous poem: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen — And waste its sweetness on the desert air.” There’s a heartbreaking rock and roll correlation for that, too, one that Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a beautifully rendered film, illuminates perfectly.