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Big Star Documentary "Nothing Can Hurt Me" Reviewed

Steve Crawford meets Jody Stephens





















Heart wrenchingly sad, yet astonishingly beautiful. A failure of commerce, but an artistic triumph. The band Big Star was a brilliant aberration in this history of pop music. Two gifted yet self-destructive talents created a small body of sonically adventurous work that sounded like nothing that came before it in popular music. Their legend continues to grow exponentially.

It’s fitting that the Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me begins with a discussion of the band’s performance at the Memphis rock critic’s convention in 1973. It was rock critics that provided the band’s primary support during their tenure and former Creem scribes Billy Altman and Jaan Uhelszki provide expert commentary on both the music and the broader cultural context. In fact, if it weren’t for the rabid reaction from the critics visiting the Bluff City in ’73, the band may have only made one album.

The documentary manages to balance being lovingly produced, as thorough as the subject matter deserves, yet never beats an issue into the ground. Distribution issues and other record company financial ills are described, yet not endlessly harped upon. Setbacks are only addressed as impacts upon the individuals and the band.

Chris Bell is the tragic figure of the story – a mercurial, determined musician that produced the work of his dreams, yet became overshadowed in the press by Alex Chilton. Bell spent his short life experimenting with drugs, abusing alcohol, writing music of inconceivable beauty, and chasing spiritual fulfillment. After leaving Big Star, Bell drifted in and out of the music industry, at one point working at a Memphis fast food restaurant. He died in a car wreck at the age of 27.

Alex Chilton was an embittered veteran by the time he joined Big Star. As Bell withdrew from the band, Chilton became the primary creative force with their final album being essentially a Chilton solo effort. Some of the documentary’s most entertaining moments are clips of the former teenage pop star working with The Cramps and the art punk band Tav Falco’s Panther Burns. After a particularly dissonant number with Panther Burns is played to the absolute horror of a local television host, our hero positively beamed when introduced as “Axel Chilton!”

Nothing Can Hurt Me manages to capture the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll spirit of Memphis and the all encompassing dedication to art of Chilton, Bell, and others in the city’s music scene to include the late, eccentric producer Jim Dickinson. I can’t imagine any fan of the band not loving this documentary.

Watching this film in Memphis was a most interesting experience. Two engineers from Ardent Studios sat next to me, Chris Bell’s brother and sister were in attendance, as were several other people involved in the band’s history that appeared in the movie. Jody Stephens, the band’s polite and unassuming drummer, answered questions after the film.

At the end of the night, Sara Stewart, the sister of Chris Bell, stated that after his untimely death, Chris came to her in a dream, gave an explanation of how his car accident occurred, and assured her that he was doing fine. Perhaps Chris Bell really is the cosmos. I personally will not argue with that conclusion.


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