Rather than tell a too-much-too-soon story, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me instead profiles a power-pop troupe whose oeuvre is likened, by musician-fan Robyn Hitchcock, to “a letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985.” It’s become a cliché to call Big Star, the Memphis group led by the extraordinary songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, “the ultimate critics’ band,” and Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s rock-doc embraces this truism by presenting the writers and descendant indie-rockers who gave Big Star a successful afterlife as fans foremost, and zealots in the crusade to disseminate their idols’ tragicomically unheard work.
The film is neatly divided in two: It first follows the brief alliance of “art brat” Chilton, teenage singer of a four-million-selling single with the Box Tops, and guitar geek Chris Bell, founding mastermind who succumbed to depression and a car crash in 1978, before documenting the years-long groundswell that saw their cult grow amid reissues, cover versions, and a 1993 reformation. Big Star only released two albums during their commercially invisible career, with label Ardent Records stymied by distribution crises, and the band’s flowering was both nourished and plagued by the local “society of oddballs” (seen in brief, vivid archival clips shot by photographer and scenester William Eggleston); people with big hair, awful shirts, and absurd mustaches reveled nightly after the sale of liquor by the drink had become legal in Memphis in 1970. Before drugs and personal demons took a decisive toll on the band, their triumphant moment came when a gaggle of the nation’s rock critics came to town at the invitation of an Ardent promo man, and were blown away by a Big Star set. Nothing Can Hurt Me mythologizes the event with glowing reminiscences by the attendees, and a sense that it planted the seed for the band’s resurrection, even as Bell was having a breakdown that prompted him to erase master tapes of the first album, and limited his contribution to their second to songwriting.
Handicapped by the near absence of live footage of the band’s heyday, DeNicola and Mori give a fair hearing to most sides debating the algebra of Big Star’s quick flame-out in the ’70s, from flying against the prevailing musical winds (“We weren’t heavy”) to the indifference of industry players. But it’s also clear that they benefited from the nurturing of Ardent owner John Fry, producer Jim Dickinson (of the stillborn but eventually acclaimed third LP), and the cadre of enthusiasts who raved about them in the music press when they weren’t tracking Alex and Chris down at their post-breakup restaurant jobs. A bemused lens is cast at the enigmatic Chilton, who turned himself into a bit of a new-wave dilettante, refusing for years to play Big Star material and declaring, “I can’t write like that anymore.” (As for his turnabout participation in the revived lineup, which toured periodically until Chilton’s death in 2010, it was his best possible career move.)
It’s Bell who emerges as the heartbreaking, touchstone figure of this group biography, crystallized musically by critic Rick Clark recalling his first listen to Bell’s solo single “I Am the Cosmos”: “Oh, this is where Big Star went.” Described as a seeker, but also as a man who seemed unimaginable as a mature adult given the obstacles of his mental illness, drug use, and conflicted sexuality, the pain and loneliness of Bell’s short life are mirrored in the faces of his surviving siblings and the keening vocals of his piercing recordings. While he might be the only member of rock necrology’s “Club 27” to be described in local obituaries as “restauranteur’s son,” Nothing Can Hurt Me measures the scope of the love and legacy he never experienced.