Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
I had a chance to see a screening of the recent Big Star documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me, last night as part of the Florida Film Festival. It is an exceptional film that chronicles the brief life of one of the most influential bands that you’ve likely never heard much about. There’s been a recent upsurge of attention and acclaim following the death of lead singer Alex Chilton in 2010, and the release of Nothing Can Hurt Me will hopefully continue that tide.
I will admit a real bias here: I am a massive Big Star fan and they are an acknowledged influence of just about every band that I grew up listening to. In fact, I consider myself extremely lucky to have been turned onto the band fairly early, thanks to artists like REM and the Replacements championing the group (The Replacements most famously with their song Alex Chilton “I never go far, without a little Big Star”), since most fans alive at the time had no inkling who Big Star were, much less owned a Big Star album, due to a fairly remarkable series of distribution failures, marketing blunders, and other mishaps chronicled in the film.
The basic question the film addresses is deceptively simple: How can a band that released three albums, each critically acclaimed and widely acknowledge as some of the best music made in the history of rock and roll (Rolling Stone would include all three in their Top 500 records of all time), not have achieved at least some level of fame and notoriety? I find it difficult to listen to Big Star and fathom how they weren’t one of the biggest bands ever. Take for example September Gurls, one of the finest examples of a pop rock song this side of the Lennon and McCartney catalog.
I’m no musician, and I couldn’t write a guitar lick if my life depended on it, but if I was a musician I’d have given just about anything to have written guitar riffs on three songs, and two of them are Big Star songs: How Soon is Now by The Smiths, the song above, and this one, Oh My Soul.
I have a hard time putting into words what I love so much about Big Star’s music. So much of it hits you on a very raw, emotional level, and that sometimes makes description difficult (My usual response? “Did you LISTEN to that song?”). There was one passage last night that summed up Big Star as well as anything I’ve ever heard: Big Star is “pain transformed into beauty.” Just perfect.
Big Star was on the forefront of what would become the punk movement in both the US and UK, in that their music looked inward for inspiration, and eschewed the massive bombast of what dominated rock radio in the early 70s. Their songs are often written from the point of view of the lonely or disaffected teenager, struggling to find their place in the world, or, in one of Big Star’s most poignant songs, to find the right words to express their feelings to the girl sitting next to them.
“Sitting in the back of a car, music so loud, thinking about what to say….but I can’t find the lines.”
In the movies or in Rolling Stones songs the protagonist always has the right line or smooth thing to say in situations like this, but those things rarely happen perfectly in Big Star songs, as in life.
Anyway, Nothing Can Hurt Me is getting a theatrical release this summer, and I encourage all of you to seek it out, especially if you’ve never really heard much of the band. As we were leaving the theater last night (which included a Q&A with the film’s co-director Olivia Mori), you literally saw people who were unfamiliar with the band beforehand downloading Big Star music from iTunes or their streaming service. That’s typically the reaction I’ve found: not many people have heard Big Star, but once they do, there’s no going back.
Cheers. Now go forth and spread the gospel of Big Star.