Part of Big Star's enduring appeal is how big it isn't. The Memphis power-pop band debuted in 1972 to universal critical acclaim, and its three albums influenced hundreds of bands. Rolling Stone gave the band a kingmaking review, so what happened? As record shoptalk legend goes — and the new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me expands — marketing, troubled egos and members' reluctance to become famous ensured Big Star would instead become a legend in its rock 'n' roll obscurity.
In one of the documentary's archival interview clips, The Replacements — whose 1987 song "Alex Chilton" is dedicated to the Big Star songwriter — say Chilton and the band deserve more. "He doesn't want our help," says Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg, "but damn it, he's going to get it."
"It's not like they're Mick Jagger," director Drew DeNicola tells Gambit. "I kind of saw them more as lightning in a bottle happening in a studio — and these unwitting participants in a thing that was bigger than them."
In 1970, Chilton gave up pop stardom (as the voice and face of The Box Tops, whose hit "The Letter" stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a month). He joined Memphis songwriter Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens to form Big Star, which released the stunning debut album #1 Record in 1972. Its bold, bright riffs and pitch-perfect songcraft won over the engineers at Memphis' Ardent studios, and producer John Fry says in the film that even if the lyrics weren't that great (they were), "We got something."
DeNicola attended Tulane University in the 1990s. "I went straight for the college radio (station)," he says. "There were a bunch of weirdos in the basement of the student union, so that was my world." There he found a copy of Third, Big Star's last.
"I dubbed that to a CD and listened to it every day my freshman year, and put it on compilation tapes for girls, just like everybody did," DeNicola says.
The film is a triumphant — albeit tragic — rock documentary, relying on footage and interviews with a cast of characters, like band publicist John King, who organized the "Rock Writers Convention" that put Big Star on stage in front of the likes of Lester Bangs and the taste-making critics. Then there's Bill Cunningham, producer Jim Dickinson, Chilton's late-career collaborators, and family members who didn't know what the fuss was all about until band members' deaths.
As much as Big Star and its inner circle are the focus of the film, Ardent Studios becomes a pivotal character unique to Memphis and the Big Star story.
"My friends walk into Ardent thinking they're going to get a picture of the lobby, and they get a full tour and a T-shirt and a record, and Jody walks out and shows them his drum kit," DeNicola says. "This is kind of an Ardent-sponsored project. They had all the music and the photos and the footage, and the studio is still intact — it's basically how it was since 1971."
In the film's closing moments, Fry smiles as he hovers over the studio boards listening to Big Star tapes, which are often shown on Ardent's shelves with hand-written labels.
The film also explores the alternate-universe John Lennon-Paul McCartney dynamic of Chilton and Bell. Almost none of the archival footage shows Chilton and Bell — the band's primary songwriters — together, other than speaking in a brief radio interview where they plug #1 Record with reluctant enthusiasm.
"We never really hashed out what their relationship was," DeNicola says. "Nobody was really sure whether they were even friends. That's a big question I've come away with, and I still can't answer it."
The film treats each songwriter's career with equal weight. Bell almost-casually disappears from Big Star before the sophomore album Radio City and pursues a solo career — leaving behind his brilliant but underrated I Am the Cosmos. He died in a car accident in 1978 at 27. (His brother's scrapbook of Bell's career includes headlines following his death. None mention Big Star.)
The film charts Chilton shape-shifting from shy songwriter to punk rock godfather, appearing on public television proclaiming he's gone punk, to his death at age 59 on March 17, 2010, the day before the band's scheduled appearance at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Chilton left Memphis in the early 1980s for New Orleans and a clean slate. He played with Panther Burns and in informal cover bands while he held odd jobs — dishwashing and landscaping among them.
"I get the feeling he got really fed up with Memphis," DeNicola says. "New Orleans isn't really a city of music machines. It's more a city of musicians, who play. That was sort of his M.O. That was the lifestyle he wanted, to be a gigging musician, and make a little money to pay the rent."
Following a small Big Star "reunion" and a few solo albums, Chilton moved into a Treme cottage and kept a low profile. He played one-off gigs at Mermaid Lounge and The Howlin' Wolf, where DeNicola saw him perform.
"I was warned to keep away from him if you see him," DeNicola remembers. "I went there and thought he'd play maybe one Big Star cover. He didn't do any. He was getting a lot of jeering from the crowd, making fun of him. He was enjoying it. He was laughing the whole time."