When Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me made its North Carolina premiere at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last April, the Triangle area music scene was largely represented in the Carolina Theatre audience.
The N.C. connection—local pop artists/producers Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter are interviewed in the film—was an attracting factor, as was a performance preceding the screening by the Stamey-led band The Fellow Travelers, but the place was packed more because of the love of the original music itself. I certainly felt that love full force throughout the film as the infectious rifts of such should-be classics as “September Gurls,” “Ballad of El Goodo” and “In the Street” were received with enormous warmth, over and over.
The Memphis power pop combo consisted of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. During their existence from the early- to mid-’70s, they never had a hit single or got much radio airplay—despite album titles such as #1 Record and Radio City. But their legend has grown substantially in rock circles over the last several decades.
DeNicola and Mori’s superb rock doc gets to the heart of how the players came together, and then fell apart just a few years later, but left behind music that R.E.M.’s Peter Buck said “served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians.”
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me returns to the Carolina Theatre as part of Magnolia Pictures’ Summer Documentary Series, running Aug. 19 through Aug. 27, so curious folks and fans who missed it the first time around can now catch up with the story of the cult band.
We spoke with the film’s co-director, Brooklyn-based Drew DeNicola, about the filmmakers’ attempts to get Chilton on camera before his death from a heart attack in 2009, why the band’s 2005 attempt at a comeback album was not covered and what juicy bonus material will be included on the film’s DVD release later this year.
INDY WEEK: What documentaries, either about musical subjects or otherwise, influenced the making of this film?
DREW DENICOLA: I would say very few documentaries influenced me. I like to think of documentaries as I do narrative films. I often refer to Citizen Kane, though, mainly in the way that this documentary of Big Star is not a first-hand account. Instead, we go from person to person and get their perspective. The film is never really definitive. It's more that you get these impressions from the people we interview, and they become part of the story as well.
As it’s said in the movie that Alex Chilton could be prickly about the attention given to Big Star. Do you think, had he lived, he would’ve taken part in this film? I heard you were trying to get him involved—was he receptive to the idea, or do you think he would’ve opted not to participate in the end?
No, I don't think he would have. He said only, “It's not the sort of thing that I'm inclined to do.” But was always open to talking. It was sort of maddening, really. I think he got used being sort of an outsider over the years, and he had pretty much put the Big Star era behind him, I think, musically and personally.
I noticed that Big Star’s 2005 studio reunion album In Space was shown (in a montage made up mostly of Chilton solo album covers), but not discussed. Was this because of the mixed critical reaction to it, or was it because of time constraints?
More time constraints. We made a decision early on that this was not to be a definitive chronicle of the band but more like a primer. The great surprise as I got deeper into it was that the story of the band and that music had such universality to it that it became more of an essay on where art comes from and how it manifests or not in a commercial space. We sort of connect that idea back to much of the culture of Memphis, and I feel like finally reconcile this anglo-rock supergroup with their Memphis roots.
The 1978 album Third/Sister Lover was the first music of Big Star’s that you heard and got into. Any particular song, or songs, that are favorites from that?
“Kanga Roo,” “Take Care” “Dreamlover” were my faves. But I love the whole collection—must be careful not to call it an album! To me, the music of Big Star is so much a part of their story and lives that it's tough to pick favorites. I take it as a whole, now.
I’m working on bonus features right now. There’s a lot. We never covered Big Star's two shambolic tours, there's more info on the early days before the band was formed—Alex's life as a pop star in the Box Tops and Chris Bell’s various studio projects/bands, Rock City and Ice Water.
Lesa Aldridge, the muse of Sister Lovers might make an appearance—I think she said it would be OK. Also, Chris Bell’s two trips to Europe to work with Geoff Emerick are interesting. On one he met Jimmy Page, and another he met Paul McCartney. Also, the circumstances of Bell’s death and the many encounters people reported to have contact with him from beyond the grave are pretty interesting. Yeah, there’s a lot! The film could have easily been five hours long.