The not-quite-rise-and-fall story of the ’70s rock band Big Star seems custom-made for a documentary. All of the elements are there: a boy-wonder genius in Alex Chilton; his sensitive and troubled singer/songwriter partner Chris Bell; and a critics’ darling reputation that never quite translated into record sales. But Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s heartfelt tribute to the criminally overlooked band best known for the theme song of That ’70s Show (”In the Street”) only captures a fraction of the band’s lightning-in-a-bottle magic.
By the time Big Star formed in Memphis in 1971, Chilton (the band’s singer and guitarist) already had gold records on his wall, having cranked out hits like 1967’s ”The Letter” with his prior band, The Box Tops. Along with Bell (guitars), Andy Hummell (bass), and Jody Stephens (drums), Chilton created a blend of brash, hard-charging garage rock and tuneful, melancholy acoustic gems. Rock writers in their earphone-wearing cocoons of connoisseur good taste were knocked out. But, as would happen with the band time and time again over the course of the decade, the public didn’t follow. Maybe it was Big Star’s ironically presumptuous name (well, it was thought to be ironic—they actually named themselves after a local grocery store). Maybe it was their lack of Zepplin-esque, big-arena theatrics. Or maybe it was just plain-old snake-bitten bad luck. Either way, Big Star never managed to find the audience they deserved.
After the commercial failure of 1972’s underground classic, #1 Record (an album that remains as jaw-droppingly great today as it was 40 years ago), Bell was devastated. He went back into the studio and erased the tapes, nearly killed himself with pills, and dropped out of the band. Chilton managed to keep the band afloat through the sheer force of his will, spearheading 1974’s equally dynamite Radio City. But that too was plagued by troubles with their label and commercial indifference. Over and over again, the surviving band members (Bell died in 1978; Chilton in 2010), their promoters, producers, not to mention a smattering of critics and musicians like Chris Stamey and REM’s Mike Mills weigh in about a band toiling in obscurity that couldn’t catch a break. All of this doesn’t necessarily add up to a tragedy, but it is a shame. If Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me leads even one person to listen to Big Star for the first time, this movie will have done a great service. B