Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, documentary, co-directed by Drew Denicola and Olivia Mori, co-produced by Danielle McCarthy and Olivia Mori, written by Drew Denicola (Magnolia Pictures)
It’s a blessing and a curse. The yin-and-yang phrase looms over much of Memphis’ musical history. The great triumphs of Sun, Stax and Hi studios (and their eventual demise) often overshadowed the vast array of unsung Memphis musicians and bands. The story of the ‘70s rock-pop band Big Star and its studio and breeding ground, Ardent Studios (and its subsequent independent label), are often used as a prime example of how an above-the-ceiling type of creativity, youth and ambition synchronized, while simultaneously business and distribution unraveled, leaving a series of albums that would unexpectedly endure and influence the next several generations of fans, especially among musicians and writers, a decade later.
A number of those influenced musicians, including producer/Let’s Active leader Mitch Easter, The dB’s’ members, Chris Stamey and Will Rigby, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, are featured in the excellent documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Co-directors Drew Denicola and Olivia Mori, with producer Danielle McCarthy, who was responsible for the entire project becoming a reality, have assembled together a seamless patchwork of archival footage, rare audio, vintage photographs (many from the camera of Memphis legend, William Eggleston) and interviews, forming an astute and moving portrait of the complex, near-mythological and often sad story of two talented songwriters, a brilliant band, a burgeoning studio and documents that almost went unnoticed. It is important to note that, equally, a documentary of Big Star nearly went undone.
Perhaps it was timing, in light of the recent re-releases and issues of recordings associated with Big Star (namely the superb box set, Big Star: Keep An Eye on the Sky), Ardent Studios (Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story) and Big Star member, Box Tops vocalist and solo artist, Alex Chilton (Free Again: The “1970” Sessions), John Fry, Ardent Studios’ chief engineer, producer and founder, granted approval in 2007 to the Nothing Can Hurt Me filmmakers, allowing them access to a treasure trove of archival material previously denied to a number of filmmakers who came before seeking permission. This prompted an opening of floodgates in capturing crucial interviews, such as producer/musician Jim Dickinson, photographer/ early Ardent Art Director Carole Manning and Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, all of whom have since passed away before the film’s completion.
Perhaps it was instinct that Fry entrusted these filmmakers to present the band’s complex story (and as well as his own, to some extent) with both an honesty and reverence. Nothing Can Hurt Me succeeds in presenting the arcs of Big Star’s short-lived span, and the subsequent, perplexing solo careers of its two principal songwriters, Chris Bell and Chilton (“two shooting comets” observed Andy Hummel) in a logical chronological narrative. A 1978 cryptic audio of Chilton interviewed on a Austin, TX radio station opens the film, illustrating how Chilton felt in his initial role with Big Star: “We broke up after the first album,” referring to 1973’s #1 Record, after which Bell left the band he initially formed.
Though, as Nothing Can Hurt Me illustrates, Chilton’s statement is partially true.
In 1973, publicist John King, who was assigned by label honchos to work as a special PR representative for Big Star, concocted the first-ever Rock Writers’ Convention, inviting over 100 top rock scribes nationally. The list included Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Cameron Crowe, among many others. Cleverly, King attempted to create an opportunity for rock/pop writers to unionize, while also featuring Big Star as the musical headliner. After Bell’s departure, King was instrumental in convincing Chilton to continue with Big Star (as a trio) and to record a follow-up to their overlooked debut (which would be the more rough-edged, yet equally masterful, Radio City). Along with King, Creem staff writers Jaan Uhelszki and Billy Altman, freelance writer/ Patti Smith Group member, Lenny Kaye, and Memphis musician/ raconteur, Ross Johnson give insightful observations of the convention and how Big Star won over an audience of jaded and intoxicated music writers.
Jim Dickinson and John Fry represent the center, the heart, of Nothing Can Hurt Me. Their eyewitness accounts are sharp, clear and poignant (Dickinson passed away shortly after he was initially filmed by Danielle McCarthy in the documentary’s early stages). As a 21-year-old tech geek, Fry started Ardent Studios, and eventually encouraged a young group of eager musicians, including Bell (who was still in his teens), Chilton and Dickinson, to use Ardent as a “school” of sorts, giving them keys to studio to hone their engineering skills and create their own demos during the studio’s off-hours. So by the time #1 Record was ready to record, the band, namely Bell and Chilton, had their arrangements and overall sound worked out. Fry also comments in the documentary that much of the record was engineered by Bell since Fry was often busy engineering Stax’s acts (Stax then had an overflow of sessions being recorded in the early ‘70s, and recruited Ardent to assist).
Tackling the tangling and multilayered narrative of Big Star recalls the often-quoted phrase of French New Wave auteur/director Jean-Luc Godard: “In filmmaking you can either start with fiction or documentary. But whichever you start with, you inevitably find the other.” What the filmmakers have achieved is rare, unraveling the “facts” while allowing for the “myth” to be equally embraced, and subsequently letting an individual’s emotional impact to be shown. Perhaps Chilton understood the mythical reality of the band more than anyone. The documentary’s title borrows from “Big Black Car,” a dark song found on oddly maverick ’75 recording, Third/ Sister Lovers. “Driving in my big black car, nothing can go wrong,” Chilton croons hazily. “Nothing can hurt me, nothing can touch me. Why should I care? Driving’s a gas. It ain’t gonna last.”
Nothing Can Hurt Me is a thoroughly researched, fluid assemblage, employing an effective use of subtle graphic effects. The band’s achievements – the scintillating debut album, the ringing chime of the near-perfect pop song, Chilton’s “September Gurls,” highlighting the band’s second, Chilton-led phase and the deconstructive and melancholic aura over the Dickinson-produced Sister Lovers – are succinctly encapsulated in the documentary’s closing shot. John Fry, who sits behind the mixing board of Ardent, is revisiting the tape of “September Gurls.” As Chilton’s ringing solo enters, a smile inches across his face. It’s the expression that all Big Star fans share.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is currently on a select theatrical screening nationally. The DVD is slated for a November/ December 2013 release, with added footage.