Kick-started with a period of gilded optimism, the Big Star story ends in drugs, mental illness, failure and death. Barely known during their initial incarnation, the Memphis group’s output – two albums of power pop followed by a tortured third – has retained a dogged following. The patronage of the likes of R.E.M., The Bangles, The dB’s and more helped turn Big Star into a cause célèbre, but the group’s story remained largely, and somewhat shamefully, hidden.
For director Drew DeNicola, the time has come to reveal the true tale of Big Star. New documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me does exactly that, utilising rare imagery and exclusive interviews to chart their beautifully doomed trajectory.
“I was just a typical college radio kid,” he explains. “Those records were some of the most talked about college records of the ’90s. I got into the third album (‘Third’/‘Sister Lovers’) first, just because I was more into difficult-sounding music at the time and I wasn’t quite ready for the pop sounds of the first record. Of course, I learned while we were doing the film that those first two records had an edge of their own. I think the main mystery was how did they get to this third record from the first one. It’s so insanely shambolic. That was kind of my approach during the film: how did they get there?”
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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, trailer
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Travelling south, Drew began questioning some figures in the Memphis music scene, the community that surrounded Big Star and Ardent – the Stax subsidiary that initially released the band’s music.
“I felt the Southern-ness of the music but I couldn’t really explain it,” DeNicola muses. “I know a lot of people - like R.E.M. and The dB’s – respond to it because it has that Southern element to it, but with a wider worldview. That’s kind of the way Memphis is. They’re very sharp characters, insular but aware of so much. Great storytellers. What you find in the Ardent situation is that it was this island of sophistication and Anglophilia in Memphis; their interest in The Beatles and how hi-tech the studio was. On weekends some of the guys would go on flights to the Caribbean, they travelled and experienced a lot. They were this erudite, hipster crew who I identified with.”
Lead songwriter Alex Chilton was a teen idol with The Box Tops, but returned to Memphis eager to do something he could call his own. Introduced to Chris Bell, the two set about constructing the material that appears on Big Star’s fabled debut album, the rather optimistically titled ‘#1 Record’. However, two such potent talents couldn’t quite coalesce, with Bell departing as sessions for a potential follow-up began.
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Big Star as a foursome: (l-r) Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel
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“I think it’s sad for Chris Bell,” the filmmaker sighs. “Alex was constantly moving and would have always found something to do. I think that the other guys were just along for the ride, mainly.”
“I mean, for the DVD extras I did a 30-minute feature on Chris Bell’s later years,” he continues. “It just got weirder and weirder for him. He obviously had these issues with his sexuality and the drugs were getting worse and worse. As evangelical and enthusiastic as he was getting with religion, he was getting just as enthusiastic with his drug use. The problem for both Chris and Alex is that they did get to live like rock stars, but without any success. It was a weird situation. Chris Bell flew around on jet planes, he recorded in great studios with amazing musicians and was even revered by a very small coterie of people and he was aware of that. It probably messed with his head more than anything else. After he came back from Europe it just wasn’t the same.”
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me traces the tale of the Memphis group from their starred origins to their ignoble collapse. Recorded in lengthy, fraught and wired studio sessions through 1974, ‘Third’ eventually emerged in 1978. Charting Chilton’s mental decline, it also acted as an exorcism of sorts – ever keen to move forward, the frontman founded a career as a producer (working with The Cramps, amongst others) while also embracing the oldies circuit with various incarnations of The Box Tops.
“I lived in New Orleans for a couple of years,” says DeNicola. “I would see him around and I saw him play. Of course, being how old I was – like, 20 years old – and being a Big Star fan it was a real bummer. He was chuckin’ and jivin’ onstage, being real goofy. I think he may have bumbled through a version of ‘September Gurls’ or something. I wasn’t into it, I didn’t get it. I definitely get it more now.
“When I started doing this project the big worry was: is Alex going to do this? He was playing some county fair in New Jersey and just said, ‘This is not the sort of thing that I’m inclined to do.’ He just repeated that over and over again. He wasn’t really a jerk about it. He bought us a couple of drinks after the show. Of course, he went over the story and talked about guitars, soul music. He was a fun guy to hang out with. Again, he wanted to move forward. Big Star was something in his past, I don’t think he really identified with the stuff he did back then.”
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Big Star, post Bell’s departure: (l-r) Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens
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Tragically, Chilton did not get to see Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me at its completion – the songwriter passed away in 2010, following a period of ill health. The singer’s death sparked numerous tributes, reminding observers of the vital space Big Star seem to occupy in the Transatlantic conversation: inspired by the British Invasion and classic ’60s pop, they in turn would become adored by British fans who aped their every move.
“It’s that same crazy feedback loop which we had in the ’60s. It’s really true, but Big Star was re-released in Europe first in like ’78 and got massive critical acclaim all over again. That led to people recording Big Star songs, and the Creation Records guys basically building their entire sound. Alan McGee has said that with all those bands the common thread is that they were fans of Big Star. It kind of came to us through those bands on Creation and 4AD, that’s how we got into Big Star. I knew about them from Teenage Fanclub.”
As its subject never truly existed as a touring entity, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is sadly lacking in archive footage – primarily because none was recorded. Yet this allows certain simplicity to seep through, with DeNicola relying on the music itself to tell the group’s story.
“The band didn’t have what it took to tour for a long time. They didn’t get along very well; they really kind of had it made [as] a studio band. That’s what I realised along the way – that it’s not really the chronicle of a band’s story because they didn’t last very long and they didn’t tour very much. They had this studio that they had access to and that was their big hang out. The band is really just a collection of recordings, because it’s the records that have lasted. Those are the artefacts which we’re talking about now.”
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Words: Robin Murray
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is available in the UK next week (w/c December 1st). More information here.