Led by teen singing sensation Alex Chilton and studio mastermind Chris Bell, the band name Big Star and the album title #1 Record were picked in jest, but the choice became increasingly ironic as the band failed to find any commercial or popular success. Though critics adored them, the group often played to near-empty venues. Bell left the band he had founded due to personal troubles, and Chilton carried on in near-obscurity. A third album was shelved without release, and the group essentially dissolved in 1974.
Luckily, Big Star’s music had a second act, as generations of new fans slowly discovered it. Though the Big Star story was tough and often bitter for those who lived it, it also made for a perfect legend, placing the band in the position of underdogs. As millions came to adore it, each new fan felt like he was making a private, personal discovery.
Big Star’s albums continue to be “lost classics” well after they have been “found.” Though they never became a household name, musicians have cited them as a formative influence, and they’re practically required listening for college radio DJs. It’s impossible to imagine the first wave of American indie rock—from R.E.M. and the dB’s through Yo La Tengo and The Replacements—without Big Star.
A new documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, tells the history of the band. It’s directed by New York-based filmmaker Olivia Mori (who was raised in Charlottesville) and it paints a full, coherent portrait of Big Star’s history. The film contains archival footage, extensive interviews with many who knew and worked with the band, and is packed from beginning to end with songs from Big Star albums as well as Bell and Chilton’s solo projects.
On Tuesday, September 27 at 7:30pm, WTJU will present the documentary at The Paramount Theater, followed by a Q&A with Mori. C-VILLE Weekly spoke with Mori by phone.
C-VILLE Weekly: Why Big Star? How did you come to make a documentary about that band in particular?
Olivia Mori: The project had actually started several years back, but it wasn’t going anywhere. When Alex Chilton died in 2010, that’s when I heard about the documentary. I had discovered the band shortly after college, so I was already a fan of their music, and I was interested. So production started shortly after his death in 2010, and I sort of immediately involved myself in the project.
So that’s the logical answer to your question. But in terms of the larger question of ‘why?’—we had sort of realized that there’s no comparable story out there. There are a lot of documentaries right now about bands that never made it, or almost made it, but that didn’t quite apply to them. There’s so many things about the Big Star story that you can’t really compare to anything.
I really had no idea how big the story would get. But once you start doing the research… so much of it has to do with bands from Memphis, and the cultural history from there.
I could spend the rest of my life making documentaries about Memphis. It’s completely unique. It has to do with the people. Everyone there is really talkative, and really smart.
That must have made your job easier when trying to get interviews with everyone who was involved in that story?
We actually had a really hard time with that. Mostly because Alex had just died, and [producer] Jim Dickenson had passed away just a year before that. Three or four of our interview subjects were dying of cancer—and these people were young, just in their 60s. There was a lot of death around, and at the same time, I think emotions were still very raw, we got some very candid stuff. A couple of people just weren’t ready to talk. Alex’s death, I think for a lot of people, was just a shock, it came out of nowhere. He was a really troubled character, and he didn’t maintain good relationships. [With] a lot of people, the last time he saw them, he probably was an asshole to them. How do you react when someone like that dies?
I imagine it was also more difficult to assemble all the source material you needed for the documentary when three of the main band members are deceased.
Oh, Alex never would have done it. Even in the late ’70s, early ’80s when the records were still starting to be discovered, the people who did discover them would track him down. So even way back when, he was still being haunted by these records. It was known that he would never want to talk about it, or play those songs. He did the reunion stuff in the end, honestly, to make money, because he was really poor. He did sort of reveal in one interview that he was really embarrassed by the lyrics in Big Star. They represented a certain period in his life. Like a lot of people feel that way about things they did when they were younger, that they were immature. He wasn’t comfortable with a lot of the lyrics, but he knew the music was good. But he also shunned any kind of adoration. If you came up to him and said something about Big Star, he would say ‘fuck you.’ But if you wanted to talk to him about classical guitar or Eddie Floyd or something else, then he could be sweet.
His life was really bookended by success, in a weird way. He had this huge hit with The Box Tops as a teenager, and then was commercially unsuccessful for years, and then finally got all this critical acclaim later in life. It seemed like enthusiasm for Big Star was at an all-time high when he died.
I didn’t realize this until I started working on the film, but if you know them and you love them, you’re part of a club. That’s part of why the movie’s been so successful. Everyone who knows them loves them and wants to hear the story. Since the movie has come out, at every screening, all of the fans come out. So it’s been really great having the movie out and bringing them together. It’s kind of like a secret handshake. If you meet someone, and the topic of Big Star comes up, you just know you can trust that person. You share something with them.