They had swagger, melancholy, and a melodic crunch that led to some of the catchiest pop songs of any era. They also knew they were good. Why else name your first album “#1 Record”?
But in 1974, after three years and poor sales, the Memphis-based Big Star was done. Or was it? Reissued by record labels in Europe, plugged by everyone from R.E.M. and Yo La Tengo to the Replacements and Elliot Smith, their music found an audience and the group became a cult icon. All three Big Star records are on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 top albums of all time. Alex Chilton, the group’s quirky, conflicted singer-guitarist leader, played “The Tonight Show” in the early 1990s with a reformed version of Big Star.
Which leads to “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” meant to tell the band’s story three years after Chilton’s death.
The film is beautifully shot and stuffed with archival footage and talking heads. It is also frustrating, a too tidy rock doc that won’t please the Big Star obsessive or the newcomer.
To be clear: The film is worth watching, if only as a kind of sonic scrapbook shared by Big Star’s recording studio collaborators and the stream of rockers and critics who appreciated them.
But I wish more effort had been made to explain Chilton. As a teenager in the late ’60s, Chilton hit No. 1 growling “The Letter” for the Box Tops. Big Star would be a fresh start. He could write his own songs and team up with singer-guitarist Chris Bell, another Memphis musician with a yen for emotional power pop. “Thirteen.” “September Gurls.” “In the Street.” These are special songs.
The documentary spends a lot of time on Bell, some of the material quite moving, despite the fact that he left Big Star after one album. (Bell died in 1978 in a car accident.) I assume that’s because Bell’s family cooperated. I can only wonder what deal the secretive Chilton’s family struck with filmmakers Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori.
Sure, you can license Alex’s songs. But don’t dare dig into his life. There’s no visiting the cottage Chilton bought in New Orleans and lived in during his later years. There’s no interview with Chilton’s 1970s girlfriend, who served as his Big Star muse. His wife also goes unmentioned.
We’re left guessing why Chilton spent his final decades as raconteur and cut-up, croaking out “Girl From Ipanema” during club shows. And then, just when you thought he was done, Chilton offered up an electric performance like “Dony,” a song recorded in 2005 under the Big Star name that could have fit beautifully on any of the 1970s albums.