In our era of exhaustively curated rock iconography, until recently the Big Star saga remained relatively undocumented, essentially out of reach. With little available in the way of visual archives, fans had to content themselves with poring over the re-released album sleeves to glean a sense of the vanished world that Big Star had inhabited.

There was Carol Manning’s iconic cover image for No. 1 Record, the yellow neon letters of the band’s name cradled by a flimsy wire star. There was the seedy glamour of William Eggleston’s ‘Red Ceiling’ photo taken at TGI Friday’s in Memphis, used on the sleeve of the sophomore LP, Radio City. And there were pictures of the boys raising hell in said drinking den – a gin-soaked Alex Chilton pointing at the camera; the leonine cool of drummer Jody Stephens in his Gram Parsons-style patchwork leather jacket.

Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me leaves no stone unturned in its determination to take us closer to the Big Star story. It’s a labour of love, pieced together from scraps of wonky footage, radio tapes, rarely-seen photos and in-depth interviews with Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel, assorted members of the band’s inner circle, and even the guy from the local record store.

'Red Ceiling' by William Eggleston

‘Red Ceiling’ by William Eggleston

As a result, Nothing Can Hurt Me manages to capture a tangible sense of Big Star’s time and place, not least the fading rock-and-soul Mecca that was Memphis itself – all neon-lit diners, blurry gas stations and sun-kissed parking lots.

The film meticulously chronicles the now-familiar tale of dashed hopes, recounting how ex-teen idol Chilton, licking his wounds back home in Memphis after quitting The Box Tops, forged a short-lived songwriting partnership with local Beatles obsessive, Chris Bell.  With high school pals Hummel and Stephens on bass and drums, the band released No 1. Record in 1972, to widespread acclaim from the rock press.  When the album stiffed, Bell departed, leaving Chilton to turn out two more neglected masterpieces before Big Star imploded two years later, only to be rediscovered by later generations as one of the seminal groups of the decade.

The film does a great job of exploring the pivotal role of Ardent, the Memphis studio and Stax subsidiary where all three Big Star albums were recorded in as many years.  The Big Star sound was every bit as important as the songs themselves: each record came with its own aural identity, from the Mellotron-drenched chunk-pop of No 1. Record to the tenebrous experimental chamber music of Sister Lovers.

We hear extensively from Ardent Studios boss John Fry, Big Star’s long-suffering producer and mentor, who by the time of Sister Lovers was barely on speaking terms with Chilton. The film also includes an archive interview with the late Jim Dickinson, the maverick producer behind Sister Lovers, whose services were later sought out by the likes of Primal Scream and Spiritualized. Dickinson’s widow Mary eloquently describes how the producer worked his magic in “the space between the notes”, letting Chilton’s chaotic creative methods off the leash in a bid to capture “the music of the spheres”.

 The sad decline of Chris Bell is touchingly handled.  Bell was a kind of American Nick Drake, a prodigiously gifted but troubled soul wrestling with drugs, depression and his conflicted sexuality. After leaving the band, he became a born again Christian and wound up working in a diner in his father’s restaurant chain, before losing his life in a car crash at the age of 27. Bell’s brother David describes being moved to tears when his younger sibling invited him to his bedroom to listen to No 1 Record, which, unbelievably, Bell had submitted as coursework to a college music class. It was David who, during a visit to the Swiss Alps, took the cover photo for Bell’s 1978 solo album I Am The Cosmos, an image that perfectly captured his precarious mental state – lost in the clouds, lonely and unreachable.

It’s Bell who emerges as Big Star’s spiritual torchbearer, while the wild and wilful Chilton – who, along with Hummel, died during the making of the film – remains an enigma. After Big Star split, Chilton shunned his recent past, throwing himself into the late 70’s CBGB’s scene, producing The Cramps and playing with Tav Falco’s Panther Burns.

As you might expect, the film is littered with tributes from contemporary musicians who’ve been touched by the Big Star legacy, including members of REM, Teenage Fanclub, Flaming Lips, Hot Chip, Yo La Tengo, Jesus & Mary Chain and The Meat Puppets.

4 The film’s central premise – that bad luck, poor distribution deals and internal wrangling doomed a group that were otherwise destined for fame and fortune – is debatable.  Even at its most accessible, Big Star’s music had a fragile purity, coupled with a dark undertow of menace, that was ill-suited to the mass market. Given the prescient irony of the band’s name and the titles of their albums, it’s hard not to speculate that, at some level, the band themselves suspected as much.

While Nothing Can Hurt Me spends much of its time casting Big Star in the role of rock’s ultimate should-have-beens, toward the end there is some acknowledgement that, even with better breaks, the much-anticipated commercial success might never have materialised.  As the ever-eloquent Mary Dickinson says: “It was too individual, it was too Memphis, it was too unrecoupable.”


Leave a comment