The average guy on the street may know who or what Big Star is or was. But the right guy will always know — or be heartened to learn. A grand power-pop outfit formed in 1971 in Memphis by Alex Chilton, former lead singer of the Box Tops, and Chris Bell, a local kid with a gift for sensitive, tensile songwriting, the band released three badly distributed and decidedly non-lucrative albums before disintegrating in 1974. Only then did lovers of pop music around the world begin hearing about them, seeking out their records like lost sailors drawn by a mermaid's song. You could say Big Star achieved that dubious distinction known as cult status, but the ardor they inspire is deeper and more mysterious than that. Music historian Robert Gordon put it best in his marvelous 1995 book It Came from Memphis, calling Big Star "a word-of-mouth secret that reached Europe, Asia, and Australia without forsaking its intimacy."
Drew DiNicola's documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me honors that sense of mystery, telling the band's story as if whispering it through the cracks in a wall. There's very little footage of the band itself — their elusive magic found its truest expression in the studio rather than before a live audience. For that reason, Big Star may not be the best introduction for those who don't yet have at least some passing familiarity with the bruised-knee wistfulness of songs like "Thirteen," or the quavery undersea despair of "Kangaroo."
But for anyone already curious, Nothing Can Hurt Me delivers the goods. DiNicola outlines the band's half-triumphant, half-tragic story by seeking out the key surviving players in the saga, chief among them the soft-spoken and eminently grounded drummer, Jody Stephens, who was with Big Star from the beginning and who also helped Chilton reform a version of the band in the early 1990s, as well as John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios, the Stax Studios offshoot where Chilton and company hung out and made all their recordings.
DiNicola tells the story more or less chronologically, beginning with Alex Chilton 101. At age 14 or 15 — the truth isn't clear — this rather eccentric Memphis native launched a hugely successful career with the Box Tops: According to Memphis music-community virtuoso Jim Dickinson, interviewed here (he died in 2009), Chilton recorded "The Letter," the group's first hit, the second time he'd ever stepped behind a microphone. He quit the Box Tops in early 1970, and was then persuaded by Bell to join a new band with Stephens and bassist Andy Hummell. A bright private-school kid from a well-to-do family, Bell had very specific ideas about what his band should sound like. He and Chilton worked out the arrangements meticulously before going into the studio; after that, he spent hours at Ardent, tinkering with the material until he could hear perfection.
Hummell (who died in 2010) describes Chilton and Bell as "a couple of comets or shooting stars, or something like that." Bell split with Big Star after the release of the band's first album, #1 Record (1972), but the duo's songwriting on that album set the tone for a distinctive yet indefinable Big Star style: the wistful melodies and jangly guitars that would become a staple of '80s pop among acts like REM and the dB's. (Members of both bands are interviewed here.) But the songs also have a shimmering, ruminative quality. There are lots of bands — The Smiths and The Cure, to name just two — that make you feel better by making you feel bad. But Big Star, rather than just being mopey, could spin despair into the finest grade of gold, a thing too beautiful to hang on to forever — somehow, they made melancholy freeing. But the group was both too incendiary and too fragile to last. Even though critics loved all three Big Star albums — #1 Record was followed by Radio City (1974) and Third/Sister Lovers (1975) — distribution problems prevented the band from reaching the broadest audience.
DiNicola explores the specifics of Big Star's implosion as well as anyone can, considering band breakups are much like shattered love affairs: Who ever really knows what went wrong? Chilton went on to have an idiosyncratic and fascinating solo career, before reforming — perhaps "reimagining" is the better word — Big Star with Stephens and guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. He died in 2010 at 59. The emotionally fragile Bell died at age 27 after crashing his car into a utility pole. The gorgeous and devastating I Am the Cosmos, a collection of songs he recorded on his own, was released in 1992. It's as essential to the Big Star story as anything the band recorded together.
What, in the end, should we make of this strange little tribe whose original lineup remained intact for only one album, yet which has come to mean so much to a small but passionate subset of the world's population? In Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, musician and writer Lenny Kaye, one of the most open-hearted and unpretentious of all rock critics, makes the case. "They were there waiting, like a little jewel in the earth, for me to dig 'em out and to find them, and to appreciate them retrospectively," he says. "That to me is the great gift of recorded music." You didn't have to "be there" to get Big Star. And even if you've never heard of them, even if, after reading this sentence, you go straight to iTunes and buy a few of their songs, they will belong to you, too. Their fan club is ultra-exclusive, and there's room for everybody.