Feel, by David Bax
Big Star was one of the greatest rock bands of all time. To the rock cognoscenti, this is axiomatic. To the uninitiated, it becomes self-evident upon listening and realizing that they may already know songs they didn’t know, like “In the Street,” “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen.” By that logic, it should take at most fifteen minutes to convince a viewer who’s walked obliviously into Drew DeNicola & Olivia Mori’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me that the band was important, influential and massively talented before moving on with their story. But DeNicola and Mori can’t stop pausing in the middle of Big Star’s compelling tale to have talking heads remind us how good a band they were.
Nothing Can Hurt Me unfolds more or less chronologically, detailing the pre-Big Star days of the musicians in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 60s and culminating with tribute concerts played after vocalist Alex Chilton’s death in 2010. It details the gargantuan critical adoration that greeted their records while tracking the mixture of bad luck and bad timing that kept them from gaining ground commercially.
This temporal context is a boon to the understanding of Big Star’s importance. By the time I really became aware of them (a little over ten years ago, in my college days), I was already more than familiar with the music of The Replacements, Teenage Fanclub, R.E.M. and the numerous other bands with similar sounds that are mentioned in the film. It was only after the realization that Big Star came before all these – a fairly long time before – that I began to understand their impact and my awe grew. The film relays that influence well when it’s actually discussing the music and not just featuring shots of its interviewees listening to it and reacting a tad pretentiously. Is it possible that rock critics are bigger blowhards than movie critics?
Also helpful to grasping Big Star’s power are, of course, the songs themselves. Should you watch the film at home, it might help to have your TV hooked up to a decent sound system that’s turned up loud. Audiophiles will enjoy the movie’s abundance of production talk but a good, crisp sound will help translate those discussions to the layman.
#1 Record, the first and generally considered the best Big Star album was mostly co-written by the band’s founder, Chris Bell, and Chilton. Bell would leave the band before the recording of the second album, Radio City (though he is said to have contributed to the early stages of composing some songs). At some point in the film, Bell and Chilton are compared to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It’s an unimaginative point but it does hold some facile truth in that they were the band’s lead songwriters and they had a fractious relationship. Nothing Can Hurt Me is at its best when following their tense alliance and non-alliance. Smartly, neither is portrayed as the bad guy but Bell ends up the most sympathetic, the trepidatious genius living not only in the shadow of Chilton’s big and easy personality but also that of his own demons. Chris Bell was a drug addict, a closeted homosexual and a born-again Christian in addition to being one of the twentieth century’s most naturally gifted songwriters. His story alone would fill a great movie.
These moments of touching insight into the emotional lives of those behind the music are desperately scarce, interrupted by anecdotes about soundboards and superlatives about lyrics. When they’re allowed, though, they bring us closer to the songs. For instance, when given specific, intimate context, the song “I Am the Cosmos,” a solo track written and recording by Bell shortly before his death in 1978 at 27, gains power to the point that it will bring you to the brink of tears. Then the reminder that Chilton sang backup on that song’s B-side, “You and Your Sister,” will push you over the edge.
Unfortunately, instances like those are merely teases as to what the film could have been: an essential companion to essential music. Yet DeNicola and Mori are content to keep telling you how great Big Star are until it sounds like they’re lying. They’re not. You can probably figure that out by skipping this movie and listening to them for a couple hours instead. Feeling the music itself will always be preferable to hearing about it.