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Review: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me January 12, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Movies, Music.
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51jz4wKcWJLIt’s entirely possible that you’ve only heard any of the music in this film without knowing this band existed. You’ve probably heard that classic 60s hit “The Letter” by the Box Tops without knowing what the guy who sang it did next. You may have heard the opening credits song from That 70s Show played by Cheap Trick without ever having heard the original. For that matter, you’re probably skeptical whenever rock critics or obsessive music fans tell you that this band you never heard was actually one of the best bands ever, never mind one of the best bands that never had a hit. Well, give this a shot anyway.

If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already got this.

This is a two-hour documentary about a band most people still haven’t heard of, decades after they came and went. But they’re a band with a big cult following that includes a lot of influential musicians and writers, so there’s been a couple of books already, too.

Having read those books, I thought there were a few things that could have been covered in the documentary that weren’t… but that’s a fairly minor quibble, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

Overall this is a really good documentary that should work both for committed fans and people just wondering what the fuss is about. There’s a surprising amount of 1970s video footage of the band members, along with more recent interviews with band members, family, record company people, and other musicians. You get the pre-band history — Alex Chilton having a big hit single as the singer of the Box Tops, Chris Bell starting a band with some friends — and what came after. Chris Bell trying to go solo, Big Star continuing without him and then Alex Chilton going solo and spending years trying to get away from anything to do with Big Star and its sound, the unexpected reunion, and a lot of deaths. It’s not the most cheerful movie, to put it mildly. But the snippets of music and the obvious love for the band from many of the people interviewed, as well as the way in which Big Star was eventually discovered by a larger audience, adds a lot of positivity.

The main thing I missed from the documentary was most of what got me interested in Big Star. In 1985 I bought It’ll End in Tears by This Mortal Coil, which has covers of the Big Star songs “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust.” Not long after that I picked up the Rainy Day album, with another version of “Holocaust.” In 1986 the best song on the second Bangles album, A Different Light, was their cover of “September Gurls.” In 1991, the third This Mortal Coil album had covers of two of Chris Bell’s songs. In 1993, His Name Is Alive covered “Blue Moon.” And somewhere in there the Replacements recorded their tribute song “Alex Chilton.” The Replacements tune is referenced in the movie, but that’s it.

A few other things, the aforementioned quibbles:

  • what I’ve read about the third album suggests that Chilton’s girlfriend Lesa Aldridge played a big role as muse and, apparently, as a singer, until Chilton wiped most of her vocals; she’s not interviewed and not mentioned much.
  • Though there’s a fair amount about the Big Star reunion shows, the new lineup’s live album and single studio album go unmentioned aside from an album cover popping up on screen for a second.
  • The film is open about Chris Bell’s drug and alcohol abuse but only dances around the issue of his sexuality; he may have been gay or bisexual.

Oh… What did they sound like? Well, they were influenced by the Beatles and in turn influenced an awful lot of North American and UK alternative/indie bands. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills is in this; so is Douglas Hart of the Jesus and Mary Chain. If you were ever a new wave/alternative/indie rock/power pop fan, Big Star is in the DNA of your music. If you were into art-damaged ethereal goth bands like This Mortal Coil, well, the third album adds some precursors of that music to the power pop/classic rock sound, and it works. But you should probably start with #1 Record/Radio City, usually available on a single CD, then go for Sister Lovers/Third and Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos. I bought them in the mid-1990s and was impressed, and as time goes by I listen to them more and more often. To quote the Replacements, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.”

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