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Movie Review: ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’

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big-star-porchI can remember exactly where I bought my first Big Star record. Sometime in the early 1980s, at Variety Records in Wheaton Plaza in Wheaton, Maryland, I found a record with a striking cover photo in the cutout bins. It was the EMI pressing of #1 Record and Radio City as a gatefold double-album. It was the first time I was exposed to the photography of William Eggleston (that was his photo on the cover), who would become one of my greatest influences as a photographer, and it was the first time I heard what would become some of my favorite albums. I paid $4.99 for it.

By the 1990s, you could barely turn on the radio without hearing a band that owed part of their sound to Big Star. But in the early ’70s, the band was out of step with the heavier rock of the times. Their albums were full of challenging but perfectly accessible hard pop, soaring to achingly beautiful ballads like “Thirteen” and catchy anthems like “In the Street,” which was later recorded by Cheap Trick as the theme song to That 70’s Show. .Despite great reviews, Big Star couldn’t get their records distributed. After three albums, singer Alex Chilton took off on an erratic solo career, and Big Star fell into obscurity.

It’s the stuff of rock legend, born in the birthplace of Elvis, named for the cradle of civilization. The last several years have seen great questing rock documentaries like Searching for Sugar Man, a movie I went into without knowing the story of Rodriguez. But I’ve loved Big Star for 30 years. Does this help or hurt the movie?

Both. The first hour of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is like rock doc heaven. Director Drew DeNicola begins with the Memphis rock scene in the 1960s and takes crucial side trips to Creem magazine and the Memphis Rock Writers’ convention that Big Star’s then-manager threw in order to get 100 rock journalists in one place to see a Big Star show. Founding member Chris Bell left the band after #1 Record to find his own muse, and the movie gives generous props to Bell’s essential contribution to the band.

Even more fascinating (from a photographer’s view) is footage of Memphis photographer William Eggleston. Eggleston’s work is an iconic influence on photography and movies, and even though he is reluctantly connected to the Memphis rock scene – he would rather listen to Bach –  he documented its early days on film and video. The photographer even played piano during the sessions for Big Star’s third album, Third/Sister Lovers.

The Big Star sound was born of Ardent Records, and studio founder and engineer John Fry was as responsible for their sound as anybody was. Fry would let studio employees use down time to record their own music, and that is how the band came together.

In the second hour, interviews with people who were there are traded for interviews with the many musicians influenced by Big Star, and the movie falters. And there’s an elephant in the room that’s asked but not sufficiently answered. Why did Chilton turn away from this music and to the inconsistent R&B flavored rock and erratic standards that made up his solo career? Why is Big Star’s reunion album of new material, In Space (only referenced in passing via the cover art) so terrible? Why spend any time at all on Tav Falco? Still, anybody who loves Big Star will love most of this and forgive the overkill of talking heads.

The soundtrack, with rare demos and alternate mixes, is available June 25. The movie will be in select theaters and available on iTunes and VOD July 3.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.