'Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me' review: '70s band gets its due in new documentary

big-star-nothing-can-hurt-me-alex-chilton-jody-stephens-magnoilia-pictures.jpg
The legend of the band Big Star was born back in May 1973, when a promoter flew legions of young rock critics into Memphis for a "convention" that was essentially a stunt to get them to hear Big Star perform.

Big Star, a Memphis group built around former Box Tops singer and songwriter Alex Chilton ("The Letter"), was a bit out of step with the music of its day, a power-pop quartet just a little ahead of its time. Most people know them for creating the song "In the Street" that was adapted and covered by Cheap Trick as the theme to "That '70s Show."

With their jangly Byrds-inspired guitars and close harmonies, Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens were already earning glowing reviews, if not great record sales. 

But that May '73 junket stunt cemented them in legend. As the fame never came and the decades of musical experimenting by the leading lights of the group went on, the myth only grew. 

"Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" explores that legend through interviews with surviving members of the group, vintage radio tapes of those who haven't survived and scores of testimonials by those influenced by this band with the outsize impact on the music to come. 

Robyn Hitchcock describes the band as like "a letter posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985." 

Members of R.E.M., The Flaming Lips, the dbs and Yo La Tengo marvel at their sound and that they never lived up to their name, copped from a Memphis supermarket chain.

The Drew DeNicola / Olivia Mori film explains why. Producers, recording engineers, band members and others talk their certainty that "this thing was going to take off." Botched distribution by Stax Records meant that the LPs never were in stores as the rave reviews came out. And with their reviews going to their heads, the group wasn't touring and promoting itself in a way that would ensure success, eventually.

As several observers note in the movie, they were stuck in the fantasy of fame even after it failed to materialize. But as the years went by, the records inspired a cult of Big Star fandom. 

Chilton kept playing, experimenting and reviving the name Big Star, feeding off the legend.

The music -- on ample display here -- only occasionally hints at what all the fuss was about. 

The filmmakers were plainly true believers. But it's an overlong and often repetitious movie, dragging out a "Behind the Music" story arc to just shy of an unsustainable two hour length.

It's a fascinating period in music and an equally fascinating story of promise, talent, expectations and failure. But you can't help but feel that "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" won't settle the most important argument of all to the unconverted: Were they as good as the hype?

------

BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME
(Grade B)
Cast: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, Jody Stephens, Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey
Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori. A Magnolia release
Running time: 1:51
MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language
Photo/Video credit: Magnolia Pictures
SHARE IT ON: