The deepest hurt in Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me occurs far from the world of rock 'n' roll, on a living room couch, where David Bell and Sara Stewart sit talking about the death of their brother, Chris Bell. As a founding member of the Memphis guitar-pop band Big Star, Bell collaborated with fellow singer-songwriter Alex Chilton on #1 Record (1972), a dazzling combination of folk, jangle-pop, and hard rock that won ecstatic reviews in the music press but was doomed by poor distribution. Bell quit the band in frustration, and a solo career went nowhere; by the time he died in a car crash in 1978, he was working at a fast-food restaurant. Now Big Star is the most beloved cult band in all of rock, but to Bell's siblings this is small consolation. When Stewart tearfully confesses that she resents Big Star, David sympathizes with her: "You'd rather have him instead of having the music out there."
Stewart seems quite alone in that moment, completely at odds with the movie's agenda and yet perfectly in sync with the sense of painful isolation that was central to Big Star's music. That feeling of being misunderstood by the rest of the world runs all through Nothing Can Hurt Me, which screens Friday at the Logan as part of the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival. The movie suffers from a fannish myopia; director Drew DeNicola edited the movie himself, and his account saunters along for 112 minutes, dwelling too long on Chilton's solo career and Big Star's kinda-sorta reunion (featuring Chilton, drummer Jody Stephens, and two new guys) for a victory lap in the 90s. Yet the spine of the story survives, one of extraordinary creative accomplishment followed by bitter rejection; fused with the band's lonely music, which DeNicola samples liberally on the soundtrack, it has the power of a pop myth.
You have to be pretty cocky to call yourself Big Star and your first album #1 Record. Bell was among the novice recording engineers trained by Ardent Studios in Memphis when it began to pick up overflow sessions from the great soul label Stax Records, across town; Ardent founder John Fry (who appears in the documentary and also served as music supervisor) let his most promising students record their own projects for free, and Bell took advantage of this situation to start recording original material with Stephens, bassist Andy Hummel, and Chilton, already a former teen idol with the Box Tops. Everyone who heard their music was blown away, and when Stax offered to put the studio's label, Ardent Records, under its distribution umbrella, the pieces were all in place for Big Star—their name borrowed, in last-minute desperation, from a local grocery store chain—to break big. "I realized it was a matter of probabilities," recalls Bell's friend Steve Rhea, who worked at Ardent promoting the band, "but for Chris it was a hundred percent certain this thing was gonna all take off."
The band's confidence began to waver, and then wilted, as Rhea called radio stations around the country to plug the record and began hearing that no one could find it in stores. Stax was a soul label that didn't understand the rock market, and #1 Record, with its Beatlesesque shimmer and delicate acoustic laments, was fatally out of sync with the boogying cock rock of the moment. Carole Manning, who designed the cover art (and who died in 2010), remembers her confusion when the record failed to hit: "What's going on? We've got all these great reviews, Stax seems to be behind it, the record's great. You know, what is going on out there? And 'out there' is such a netherworld; you don't know what is 'out there.'" Stephens remembers getting phone calls from people who'd read reviews and wanted to know how they could get hold of the album. Disappointed, the band members began turning on each other, and Bell finally quit, upset that critics had ignored him and focused on Chilton.
This sent Bell on a long, lonely odyssey to get his music recognized, even as the rest of the band, buoyed by a triumphant live show at a rock writers' convention in Memphis, regrouped for a second, more R&B-tinged album, Radio City (1974). According to Fry, a drug overdose landed Bell in the hospital, and David Bell says his brother was drinking heavily by the time he traveled to the UK to mix some of his new music with Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick. Nothing came of this venture, and Bell returned home to obscurity, trying to reconcile his drug addiction with the devout Christianity that had given his songs such a spiritual lift. One bright moment arrived when Chris Stamey, who had played in Chilton's backup band (and later formed the dB's), used his Car Records label to issue a single of Bell's soaring "I Am the Cosmos." Its opening lyric—"Every night I tell myself I am the cosmos, I am the wind / But that don't get you back again"—was classic Big Star, contrasting the infinitely great and the pitifully small.
DeNicola's desire to include everything there is to know about Big Star may be the movie's Achilles heel, but on the plus side, it also results in a strong sense of the eccentric Memphis arts community of the late 60s and early 70s. Record producer Jim Dickinson (who died in 2009) recalls meeting Alex Chilton as a 12-year-old "art brat" whose mother ran a local gallery; they were at a house party and the boy was tripping on peyote given to him by photographer William Eggleston. The creative hothouse of Ardent Studios is warmly remembered by Fry, engineer Richard Rosebrough, Stephens, and Hummel (who died in 2010). They evoke a strong sense of community, though if you've ever been to Memphis or any other small southern city, you probably know that even this comes with a feeling of detachment from the rest of the world, which some welcome and others resent.
Chilton, who declined to be interviewed (and died of a heart attack in March 2010), had such an ambivalent attitude toward Big Star that if he'd participated in this documentary, it would have been a much different story. He went his own way as a solo performer, experimenting with everything from swamp boogie to Tin Pan Alley and brushing off calls for Big Star songs at his live shows. When Big Star re-formed in the 90s, he treated the band with the same amused cynicism he directed toward his nostalgia package tours with the Box Tops. The overflowing ardor of second-generation Big Star fans supplies DeNicola with the happy ending almost every documentary maker secretly craves. But it also blunts the edge of a story that's essentially tragic, filled with the disappointment of exposing oneself emotionally and discovering that no one is interested. Big Star may have burned brightly, but it did so in a vast, black emptiness, its light taking years to reach the earth.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me plays Friday night as part of the fifth annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival. Head here for the rest of our coverage.