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Big Star: A Film About Ghosts

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Big Star: A Film About Ghosts

There’s a moment early in Nothing Can Hurt Me, the heartbreaking new documentary about legendary Memphis power pop band Big Star, that will send chills through the band’s fans and newcomers alike. Footage shows the quartet at Ardent Studios recording their 1972 debut, #1 Record. They’re joking around, discussing parts of various songs, debating technical minutia—all pretty standard music documentary stuff, at least until you realize that three of the four band members are dead.

Bass player Andy Hummel and Alex Chilton both passed in 2010, and Chris Bell died in a car accident in 1978. For the three filmmakers, assembling this footage from various tapes and home movies was akin to discovering the film was haunted. Bell loomed largest, if only because there is almost no footage of him in action. Says producer Danielle McCarthy, “the first time I saw that 16 mm footage of Chris Bell, it was like seeing a ghost in person. I had never seen him in a moving image before, even though he was someone whose music I had worshipped for years. It freaked me out a little. It made me upset.”

Co-director Olivia Mori concurs. “He was presented to us as something of a ghost in the way that his spirit still haunts everyone who knew him. Pictures and accounts can only tell you so much about a person, but hearing his voice in the studio—that was the closest I ever felt him.”

Nothing Can Hurt Me is a story of ghosts and absence: of a band that was ignored in its lifetime yet beloved in its afterlife. Big Star formed in Memphis in the early 1970s, primarily as a studio venture for Bell, Hummel and Stephens. Chilton had already had a brief but intense career as the teenage singer for the Box Tops, who had a hit with “The Letter” in 1967. Burned out on touring and with no say in that group’s musical direction, Chilton retreated home to Memphis. While he is often considered the brains of the band, in the studio “Alex was very deferential and not as surefooted as everyone thinks,” says co-director Drew DeNicola. “That jibed with something that [musician/producer/badass] Jim Dickinson said—Alex came back from the Box Tops a very different person. He was very quiet and introspective. He knew he was in Chris’ house.”

Big Star made three albums—one with Bell, one without, and one that’s essentially a Chilton solo joint. All were critically lauded yet commercially ignored. However, much like with the Velvet Underground, everyone who heard Big Star formed a band. R.E.M. were fans. So were the Posies, the Jayhawks, Jeff Buckley, the Lemonheads, the New Pornographers, Guided by Voices, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, and pretty much the entire roster of 4AD Records. Subsequent generations discovered Big Star’s music and felt they knew the musicians—especially Bell and Chilton—from their personal and often anguished songs. They are arguably rock’s first cult band, and their obscurity has become an important part of the Big Star myth, consoling thousands of musicians whose dreams radically outstrip their success.

The filmmakers were fans first; their stories are not unique, nor is their emotional connection to the band. DeNicola discovered them as a DJ at his college radio station; McCarthy through the Replacements’ song “Alex Chilton.” Mori’s introduction to the band was more circuitous: “I was watching the eight-part Beatles Anthology series in 1998, just after college, and they mentioned Badfinger being one of the first bands on Apple Records. The next day I went to Tower Records to buy a Badfinger album, and there in the B’s was the Big Star twofer [the first two albums on one disc]. I bought it on impulse and spent a summer in Japan, walking around the streets of Tokyo listening to Big Star.”

It was McCarthy who instigated the project after making pilgrimages to Memphis and meeting some of the bystanders in the Big Star story—including producer Jim Dickinson, photographer William Eggleston and Ardent Studios head John Fry. “I just came at it from being a massive fan,” she says. “I couldn’t believe this hadn’t already happened. It was weird that nobody had made this documentary before.” Eventually, she brought in DeNicola and Mori to work on the project full-time, shuttling from New York to Memphis for months at a time.

Shooting in Memphis was crucial to understanding Big Star. Says Mori: “You know how certain foods taste different when you eat them in different environments? That was definitely something I thought about a lot while making the film, especially in the early stages when we first went down to Memphis. The music sounded different somehow—modern, sharper, more willful. Just walking through the doors at Ardent changed the way I heard the music.”

Had they waited, Nothing Can Hurt Me might have been a much different film, as several sources—including Dickinson, Hummel and Carole Manning—died before the film’s release earlier this year. Inevitably, that sense of loss informs every frame of the documentary, which becomes a memorial to so many of its cast. “We were never going to have a bunch of primary sources,” says DeNicola. “We were never going to have Alex or Chris, so we had to talk around them in the movie. You’re telling stories about ghosts. It’s so obvious that there’s all this stuff that we’re not able to tell you about, but you get inklings.”

What the film can’t tell you about, the music still can. Even 40 years later, songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “In the Streets,” “September Gurls” and “I Am the Cosmos” convey such a powerful sense of yearning and an overwhelming need for human connection. It’s no wonder Big Star has grown more popular with time: the hooks are certainly catchy, but the emotions have only grown more intense. Nothing Can Hurt Me celebrates the music, but it comes to the sad, yet weirdly comforting conclusion that the songs are no replacement for the men who made them.

In one of the documentary’s most heartbreaking scenes, Chris Bell’s sister Sara Stewart remarks, “I feel almost guilty sometimes talking about the music part of it, because it wasn’t my thing. I can’t help it. I kinda resent it, because it makes me sad. I’m happy for him, but I…”

She can’t quite finish the sentence. In her tearful silence, we get a glimpse of a loss that is still very raw and very real.

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