Astute documentary gives the influential Memphis band the respect they deserve
For a long time Big Star were a forgotten band. When they released their debut album ‘#1 Record’ in 1972 it sold fewer than 10,000 copies. Many were first introduced to the Memphis four-piece during their latter-day renaissance. Still, great music usually finds its way out and sure enough Big Star eventually made it into the ears and hearts of a generation of fans, some of whom turned out to be Primal Scream, The Flaming Lips, REM, Hot Chip, Elliott Smith and the guys who did the soundtrack for That 70s Show, who chose ‘#1 Record”s ‘In The Street’ as the show’s theme tune.
Now, they’re the subject of an enlightening documentary that’s a good way in to the band for a whole new generation. Sadly, singer-songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell both died in the interim, but directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori have done a good job of rounding up a host of characters from their Memphis scene to tell the story.
Through them we get a glimpse of a time and a town so swinging in the ’60s that a 12-year-old Chilton could be fed peyote by his arty parents without anyone raising an eyebrow. It didn’t seem to harm his prodigious talents, as the second time he ever sang into a microphone, at 15, he was recording the vocals for a hit single, ‘The Letter’ by The Box Tops, which went on to sell four million copies. Three years later he was out on the road, playing 250 dates in a year.
When Chilton got sick of the road life and returned to Memphis he teamed up with the ambitious Chris Bell, who’d spent his university years dropping acid and had returned with a sound in his head he needed to unleash. Most contemporary reviews focus solely on Chilton, and one of the things that this documentary does best is to redress Bell’s neglected reputation, emphasising how much he contributed to the sound of the ‘#1 Record’ tracks like ‘In The Street’ and ‘Thirteen’.
There are tragic elements to the Big Star story, as their distribution fails, their record label goes bust and Bell leaves the band, hurt by the poor sales and Chilton’s near-monopoly on the critical acclaim. Nevertheless, they find some sort of redemption through music. As an aside, there’s a great story about rock writers Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer pissing through the gates of Graceland, something so outrageous it must be true.
If you already know Big Star then Nothing Can Hurt Me is a brilliant documentary and a fine testament to a brilliant group of musicians. If you don’t: consider this a fascinating introduction.
Kevin EG Perry