Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It Turned Me 'Round

I'd read a few reviews about the flick, and since it's about one of my favorite bands, I saw Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me last night.

My attitude towards this documentary, having read a lot about the band and listened to their three 1970's releases - especially Third - was anticipatory in an arrogant manner born out of possessing just enough knowledge to be dangerous. What can this film tell me that's new about the band, I thought, and how will it re-present what I already know? It's an attitude that can make or break the success of band documentaries meant for the big screen, and a common consideration for anybody undertaking a history of any beloved musician(s). Big Star's story presents some unique challenges, too, as it is probably one of the most lauded bands on the planet this side of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Nothing Can Hurt Me drove a few things home that will be revelatory to all but hardcore fans, folks like Robert Gordon and Rob Jovanovic, and the people directly involved in Big Star's story, a lot of whom participated in the documentary. Until this film, with the exception of an Oxford American article about Big Star co-founder Chris Bell, the focus has largely been on Alex Chilton's role in the band and his life after it, which is only logical: due to his pre-Big Star Box Tops experience and his fairly public de- and re-construction of musical genres, personas, and roles on his own, he likely figured his part in it spoke for itself without further participation in this documentary. There is a more balanced approach that (hopefully) would have been there even with Chilton's cooperation: interviews with band members, art directors, PR people, Ardent Studios engineers and producers, surviving family members, critics, and members of Memphis' early '70's music and art scene abound. The distribution of Big Star's music fell through some huge cracks in the industry's operations as they were then, and the fallout from that makes for some sad, sad moments.

Perhaps it was simply hearing people like the late Andy Hummel, last Big Star man standing Jody Stephens, engineer and Ardent Studios founder John Fry, and Tav Falco speak, but Nothing Can Hurt Me also hit me between the eyes with how southern Big Star and many of the people who tried hard to get their sound beyond Memphis are.* There was something comforting and amazing about that to me that I'm still trying to figure out. For whatever reason, a bizarre mélange of entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and good dose of individuality made something incredible in Big Star's sound that shouts, screams, whimpers, and wails across the decades still - a good chunk of which could well be a last gasp of what had been a southern way of life that was ending fairly violently. It puts the tragedy that was Chris Bell's life and posthumously-celebrated musical genius into even greater relief, in a way.

Director Drew DeNicola addressed an observation after the film was shown, agreeing that the people who seem to appreciate Memphis the most, culturally speaking, are outsiders. Perhaps another four decades will pass and then the role early-mid '70's Memphis played in rock and soul will have its own clubs and museums. 'Til then, we've got Nothing Can Hurt Me...which ain't half bad.

Update, 8/1: Seems there are a number of music documentaries out right now that are studies of the triumph of the music industry's mighty boot extinguishing some small yet bright creative flames. DeNicola did mention Memphis being a "downer" town drug-wise (quaaludes out the wazoo), but 'ludes sometimes can't hold a candle to the combination of corporations and creative efforts.


*I heard some of my late Knoxville, TN, granddaddy in John Fry - that courtliness combined with an engineer's precision. Though my granddaddy was an electrical engineer & Fry is largely concerned with sound, there are some common traits. Also, seems Chris Bell was at UT in Knoxville around the same time my mother attended the school. Knowing how Knoxville was in the early '70's, it's no wonder he dropped out and went back to Memphis.

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