The story of Big Star, one of the best-known cult bands in rock history, is unveiled in the documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. It traces the glorious, and confounding, history of a group of talented musicians who hailed from Memphis in the early '70s. Watching the first part of the film, which chronicles the band's formation and early studio work, it really is hard to believe that their debut (aptly titled #1 Record) didn't become a huge hit, especially after receiving rave reviews in Rolling Stone and Creem. Yet, for various reasons, - including distribution problems, lack of promotion, a mismatch with the heavy-rock taste of the mid-'70s - the record didn't sell, leading to tension in the band. Guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell became so frustrated that he
even erased some of the album's masters. Shortly afterward he left the band.
Although Alex Chilton, who had been a teenage wunderkind as lead singer of the Box Tops, is the best known member of Big Star, one of the insights of the film is how much Bell contributed to the band's sound. This becomes clear during a poignant section later in the film when Bell travels to England to try his hand (unsuccessfully) at a solo career, and we hear the tracks he mixed with Beatles' engineer Geoff Emerick [Tape Op #57].
Meanwhile, back in Memphis, the other three members of the band are invited to play at a rock writers' convention. The show is rapturously received by Lester Bangs, as well as other music critics; so much so that the group is convinced to record a second album (Radio City). Amazingly, once again, their record was doomed by events beyond the band's control, including the bankruptcy of parent label Stax Records. Finally, with the band and his romantic relationship barely hanging together, Chilton records Big Star's third and final record, Third/Sister Lovers; produced by Jim Dickinson [Tape Op #19].
The film features excellent interviews with the late Dickinson, as well as Chris Stamey of The dB's, Mitch Easter [#21], engineer/owner John Fry of Ardent Studios [#58], and many others. Throughout we see wonderful glimpses of Memphis music history, as well as vintage footage and photos from Ardent Studios through the years. Drummer Jody Stephens [#58], the only surviving member of the band, and bassist Andy Hummel both appear in interviews recorded for the film; Chilton is represented by older footage. The music in this film sounds fantastic, which has a lot to do with the high quality of the original recordings.
Through live and studio recordings, archival footage and testimonials, the documentary manages to convey the appeal of Big Star's music, from power pop to the dark, austere sound of Third/Sister Lovers. It will excite both existing Big Star fans and those whose only exposure to their music was via the theme to That '70s Show. Robyn Hitchcock describes the band's influence perfectly, saying their music was like a message dropped in the mailbox in 1972, only to arrive ten years later. Maybe that's small consolation to the band's commercial aspirations at the time, but it's proof that great music can eventually have its day. The film is currently in theaters, in limited distribution, and via iTunes.