Nothing Can Hurt Me – Two Views
Take One – Simon Wright
The fact that this lengthy (two hours) dissertation on America’s best-known unknown band should premiere at the London Film Festival reinforces both the anglophile nature of the bands music and the fact that for a long time their legacy generated more respect in the UK than in their home country.
The narrative stubbornly refuses to conform to the usual pop-bio trajectory: obscurity followed by recognition followed by commercial success followed by artistic decline. Chief Big Star Alex Chilton had sung on a four-million selling hit single by the age of 16 (The Letter by the Boxtops) and every record he released subsequently was less successful in commercial terms than its predecessor.
The film is hampered by only having 20 minutes footage of Big Star to work with. By necessity much of the narrative is carried through talking-head interviews. Alex, whose response to pretty much anything was “I’d rather not”, was not one of them, and Chris Bell (McCartney to his Lennon) died in a car accident in 1977. Distressingly many of the major figures in this tale such as bassplayer Andy Hummell and producer Jim Dickinson died after recording their interviews, leaving drummer Jody Stephens as the only band member still with us. Friends, family, colleagues and acolytes fill in the story as best they can.
Through it all runs Memphis, birthplace of rock’n’roll and a magnet for strange people exhibiting twisted behaviour. The footage used from legendary home-movie Stranded In Canton bears this out to chilling effect. But then Big Star were never just about popsongs: the lightness of their melodies was always balanced by a darker melancholia, which is why they are still revered today rather than other “power-pop” contemporaries such as Dwight Twilley or the Raspberries.
Intriguing themes emerge. Some feel the band had it too easy – taken under the wing of Ardent Studios from the get-go they never had to do the classic struggling band thing of looking for a record deal through live dates. Top of the range gear and unlimited studio time was also part of the deal. However it was a mixed blessing; part of the Ardent deal was that they signed to Stax where the band suffered from record company cluelessness and truly abominable distribution that left them unable to capitalise on a welter of stunning reviews because no-one could find their records in the shops.
But maybe they got as far as they ever would. Bell was unstable, riven by spiritual and sexual conflicts. Chilton’s disillusion with the record industry seemed total before he even joined the group. Under the circumstances a stable long-term career seems unlikely. And if those first two stellar LPs had achieved the sales they deserved we might be heartily sick of Big Star by now, early promise replaced by later mediocrity. Even the protagonists accept that calling your unknown band Big Star smacked of arrogance, even if it was the name of the supermarket across the road from Ardent. It’s hard to imagine a UK band calling themselves Budgens.
As it is they made three stunning and diverse LPs and stopped. The Lafayette recordings on the Big Star box-set reveal the post-Bell trio up as a competent live act. Their reputation is probably at an all-time high. This excellent documentary will undoubtedly bring in a new generation of fans. It also does a good job of telling longterm followers things we don’t know. Particularly strong is the coverage of legendary 1973 Memphis Rock Writers Convention, which single-handedly reignited the bands career after the commercial failure of Number One Record. And John King (Head of Promotion at Ardent should have his own chat show.
Director Drew DeNicola introduced the screening and then took part in a Q&A together with John Fry, as the man who engineered their key recordings. Exuding Southern courtesy and modesty John underplayed his role but he was crucial. The music he helped create is equal in sonic terms to what was achieved by George Martin at Abbey Road or Jimmy Miller at Olympic. It was gratifying to see him get his dues from a well-attended NFT1.
My only quible is the title. Nothing Can Hurt Me is presumably ironic, as pretty much everyone in and around Big Star suffered for it on some level. Maybe You Get What You Deserve would have been more accurate.
Take Two – John Perry
To the BFI Southbank for the premiere of Drew DeNicola’s film ‘Nothing Can Hurt Me’. Nominally a film about Big Star it’s really about Memphis, about recording, and about the cast of locals who rallied round the label in an attempt to continue the legacy of Sun and Stax into the 70’s. Intelligent film, made just in time as a good half of the principals passed away soon after filming.
I have little trouble in seeing why Big Star didn’t rise above cult status in an era dominated by Zeppelin and Alice Cooper. Bad timing assisted by bad distribution. I’m not sure that their records would be as lovable today if they’d been pounded to death on every radio station for the last 40 years. Ardent studio owner John Fry emerges as a gentleman and the label’s promo man is funny describing attempts to plug their records on US radio where most programmers thought he was flogging Argent — “oh yeah, we love that ‘Hold Your Head Up’ song”. The band are well-served by a director who’s bright enough to avoid a linear rise and fall biography and allow the story to tell itself via characters like Dickinson, Eggleston et al. Well worth seeing.