During junior high and high school, I was a big fan of Matthew Sweet, whose music I still dig today. When I hear songs from Girlfriend, Altered Beast, and 100% Fun, they bring me back to that age and those awkward adolescent feelings. Like a lot of power pop, the music is bright despite the pain in the lyrics; it’s as if the adult musician is patting his teenage self on the back, letting him know that things will be okay even if it’s a right bummer now.
Matthew Sweet was my gateway into two influential ’70s bands that I’d love when I got to college. First there was Television, the quintessential NYC protopunk band. (Television guitarist Richard Lloyd played lead on many Matthew Sweet songs.) Second was Big Star, the cult Memphis band who helped shape power pop.
Sweet appears briefly in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. He praises the beauty of Big Star’s music along with Mike Mills of R.E.M., Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, and Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip. Nothing Can Hurt Me is a great tribute to the band, and it sort of answers the question that fans of Big Star usually ask: Why weren’t these guys huge?
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Directors: Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
Release Date: July 3, 2013 (limited theatrical, VOD, iTunes)
Big Star was formed by Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens in 1971. This original lineup only recorded one album together, the ironically named #1 Record. While Chilton received much of attention given his personality and the work he did with The Box Tops, Big Star’s sound was mostly Bell’s influence, evidenced by his posthumously released solo album I Am the Cosmos. Bell left the band after the first album, though Big Star chugged along and recorded two more records, Radio City and the alienating Third/Sister Lovers.
All three Big Star records were included on Rolling Stones‘s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. They’re three of the best American albums to come out of the 1970s, and that’s not hyperbole. “Thirteen” might be one of my favorite expressions of nervous young love in the form of a song — it’s shy, it’s adorably naive, and it’s so sincere. Give “The Ballad of El Goodo” a listen and it’ll make you feel hopeful as the glimmer of the guitars produces that chilly, tingly feeling throughout your body. “September Gurls” is just a great damn song, and ditto “Thank You Friends” and the oddball “Kangaroo.” Really, why weren’t these guys huge?
Nothing Can Hurt Me reveals that despite the great music, a combination of bad luck and worse distribution meant few people could actually get any of those albums at their local record stores. Yet Big Star was a critical darling. Critics praised them at the time and obsessed over them in years after the band dissolved. Obsession is what kept Big Star alive. The documentary recounts a rock critic convention in the 1970s where Big Star absolutely killed. The band turned a roomful of jaded music writers (Lester Bangs among them) into a pack of rabid, gamboling fanboys.
The Big Star story doesn’t have an easy shape. A few music docs I’ve seen in the last year or so have a kind of narrative structure built into the life of the band, particularly if they’ve made a remarkable comeback of some kind (e.g., A Band Called Death). Big Star’s resurgence was a gradual one achieved through music stores, word of mouth, and music critics — it’s not as visually compelling or as striking as sudden rediscovery. There’s also a shape that comes from following a compelling personality (e.g., Beware of Mr. Baker). Chris Bell passed away in 1978, and Alex Chilton, Big Star’s most compelling personality, didn’t want to be interviewed for the film. In Big Star’s darker days, Chilton tells his bandmates that he could take or leave the music industry. (Chilton passed away in 2010, as did original bassist Andy Hummel.)
Nothing Can Hurt Me darts into little alleys along the way while discussing the band, focusing a bit on the Memphis music scene, talking to rock critics about their memories of the band, shifting focus to producer Jim Dickinson, and so on. Yet the documentary holds interest because its divergences still hang alongside the band’s chronology, and directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori interviewed the right people for insight and punctuation. The drops of Big Star songs and material also helps a lot, particularly footage of the band in its early days.
I think what DeNicola and Mori have managed to do through their structure is examine the band’s history while creating oblique portraits of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. Bell’s an especially interesting figure since he’s off doing his own thing after leaving the band. Meanwhile, Big Star is morphing in order to reflect the new musical interests of Chilton. Bell comes across as this vulnerable, suffering artist whose life seems like a preface to tragedy, whereas Chilton has a cavalier attitude about what he does, whatever it is.
One person interviewed in Nothing Can Hurt Me mentions how Chilton could just throw things away if he wanted, and suddenly the beauty of Big Star makes a strange sort of sense. Big Star joined the sensibilities of the hurting introvert (Bell) and the devil-may-care rock imp (Chilton); the kid who was anxious about wanting to hold a girl’s hand and the boyking who was touring with The Box Tops at age 14 or 15. If power pop is built on making the bad times a bit more palatable, these two personalities at the center of Big Star might be the marriage of sad lyrics and crunchy guitars in a nutshell.
My favorite observation about Big Star comes from a few of the music writers in the doc, and it gets at the heart of cult followings. Why did Big Star never get huge? Distribution, sure, but maybe Big Star was always going to be a niche band. Maybe they were not ahead of their time, and maybe they were not waiting for culture to catch up. Maybe Big Star was a band meant for the right people at the right time, and when Big Star did get to those people, those people wouldn’t be able to shake it. The right people may be rock critics, music snobs, and people in the know, or it may be some music obsessives at the record store looking for chains of influence from artists they like today.
Cult bands are for just a handful of people who get it. With Big Star, more and more people got it over time. If Big Star got big, they probably would have faded away, and they probably would’ve sounded awful like Kiss. Big Star’s appeal was that they were like a great secret between friends — a note handed under the table during geometry — a small band that burned bright, but in a manner that only a few people could see clearly. Since Nothing Can Hurt Me is such a compelling portrait of the band, it might help convert some non-fans. Mostly, it’ll make people who love Big Star love them more, and it’ll make it easier to spread the word.