It’s high time someone made a documentary about legendary '70s power-pop rockers Big Star. Their remarkable story of commercial failure despite releasing masterpiece after masterpiece and receiving unanimous critical acclaim needs to be heard. However, unlike Senna, the much-feted documentary about a racing driver that appealed to people who knew nothing about racing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me will be best appreciated by the fans. That said, unacquainted listeners' appetites will be whetted.
Opening in the present, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s film makes its premise abundantly clear: how were one of the best rock bands in history such a catastrophic commercial failure, and how did they go on to achieve such grand cult status? While the answers to these questions start to emerge (poor distribution and promotion, among other things), we learn about the bitterness, the feuds, the solo projects, the depression, the experimental phase, the punk phase and sadly, the eventual death of the band’s two core members: first, Big Star founder Chris Bell in 1978, and subsequently lead vocalist Alex Chilton in 2010.
Chris and Alex are the main players throughout; Chris being the shy and melancholy one, and Alex the more charismatic figure. Understandably, Chris, who was clearly a key element of the band’s sound, felt like he was living in the shadow of Alex’s ego, and decided to go it alone. It’s here where the band’s sound changes and the bitterness of never making it manifests itself in the more destructive, experimental sound they cultivated – notably in the brilliant feedback-drenched opener 'Kangeroo' (below) on Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers.
From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard at times to tell whether you’re being moved solely by the music or the storytelling – it’s probably 60 percent the music and 40 percent the filmmaking. But you can’t complain when you’re hearing ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’, ‘Feel’, ‘Thirteen’, ‘September Gurls’ (the closest they ever came to a radio-friendly pop hit), ‘Watch The Sunrise’ and Bell’s ‘I Am The Cosmos’ – all full blast in a movie theatre. That’s not to discredit the filmmakers though, who do an excellent job of providing an insight into how the records were made (a Yoko Ono-esque muse in the case of Third/Sister Lovers), and putting the limited archive footage to great use.
The film is most adept when reverently handling Chris Bell’s death, through using Bell’s excellent ‘I Am The Cosmos’ and ‘You and Your Sister’, which features an astonishingly haunting harmony by Bell and Chilton (listen to it!), who momentarily put aside their feud and did what they did best. We listen together with Bell’s brother who sadly didn’t hear his brother's seminal record until after his death. This is the most poignant and unforgettable moment in the film.
With three perennial albums and a gripping story to boot, it’s bizarre that this documentary hasn’t been made before (better late than never, as they say) but the wait was worth it. Observing the band’s finest tunes and their enduring legacy, Nothing Can Hurt Me is profoundly moving, dramatic, insightful, entertaining and up there with the best music documentaries ever made – yeah, I said it.
It’s fair to say Big Star were once criminally overlooked. Not anymore. Alex and Chris have now been immortalised on film; spread the word.
'Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me' is released in Canadian cinemas on July 5th.
Follow Oliver on Twitter: @OliverLunn