The documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me details more than a once unappreciated but far from forgotten band. Released by Magnolia Pictures, the film encapsulates a slew of musical movements, spanning from the tumultuous 1960s to the turbulent 2000s, chronicling the music of and surrounding the band. Though perhaps most notable for the theme to That 70’s Show (covered by Cheap Trick for the show), Big Star is connected to a surprisingly diverse span of all things music.
This includes the production of The Cramp’s debut album, enormous influence on the likes of REM and Elliot Smith, and a historic place among the Memphis music scene. Watching this film, the viewers are struck with the sorrowful longing roused at the sounds of a classic, beloved song, regardless of their familiarity with the band.
Much like the band’s career, the film takes an elusive approach, casting a career outside of the spotlight appreciated only by those in the know. Unlike the playing out of real life, however, the significance of Big Star is pleaded by musicians, producers, fans, and friends alike. Through them, we are provided a story of genius gone unappreciated, taking the form of two very different songwriters who came together to make a sound truly special (when hearing their songs, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t hits from the get go). The first to hit the spotlight was wunderkind Alex Chilton, who first rose to fame at age 15 as the singer for the band The Box Tops. His time with Big Star exceeded that of fellow leader Chris Bell, an audio-engineering mastermind whose life was tragically cut short at 27.
Despite a big sound whose reach exceeded the times, career, and age of the band itself, Nothing Can Hurt Me includes little footage of the band performing, perhaps a result of its shaky career, short period together, or being overlooked in a period rife with revolutionary bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Because of this, the music itself is the sole testament to the stories provided by documentary’s interview subjects. However, the music does a phenomenal job of bringing even the most uninformed viewer intimately close to the period he may have missed. Because of this, it’s easy to see why Big Star, a band ahead of its time, is so close to the heart of some of the biggest musicians that followed. Most moving among the songs played (and, in the case of Big Star, replayed over and over) throughout the film are the tracks I Am the Cosmos and You and Your Sisters, solo songs recorded by Chris Bell. Vastly different then the work of Alex Chilton, who led a far more diverse yet sporadic career, Bell’s emotionally engaging tunes define him as the genius behind Big Star’s original, unusual and captivating sound, allowing the lyrics to transcend their metaphors to become moving and memorable sounds of despair, all the while remaining catchy.
For those of you completely unfamiliar with the band (myself included), some of the film’s bigger transitions from scene to scene will seem incredibly jarred. Even with its great music and numerous testimonies from those most qualified to provide them, jumps from Nashville’s music scene to Chris Bell’s departure to solo careers seem not only unclear, but incredibly confusing. If watching at home, don’t fall victim to the urge to rewind to find what you missed – you won’t. This is because the story, though told by those closest and most familiar with the band, lacks a clear, overarching narrative voice, resulting in a series of events rather than a clear, concise chronicle.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is, in the end, a drama illustrated through interpersonal relations with the bands, the tortured artist within Chris Bell, the jack of all trades Alex Chilton, and brief glimpses of great, moving music. The film succeeds in that the plot (2 hours of a band that didn’t make it) may be uninteresting to viewers not particularly interested in music, indie info, or music history, yet manages to tell one of the standard yet captivating stories constantly found behind memorable rock and roll bands.
Opens July 18th in select theaters. Watch the trailer.