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With: Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Jody Stephens, John Lightman, Robyn Hitchcock
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language
Running Time: 113
Date: 07/03/2013

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

What's Going Ahn

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I discovered Big Star thanks to a college friend, a guy that lived next door to me in the dormitories. At the same time, he introduced me to The Replacements, whose song "Alex Chilton" was new at the time, and which referred to Big Star. I was intrigued. Today I own all three Big Star albums and sing along to them in the car. Now here comes the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. And I was curious about just how it would hit me.

For non-fans, a good rock documentary should introduce the music and get viewers excited enough to listen to it later. For fans, it should dig deeper into the musicians, their dynamic and personalities, and the social impact of the music. It should somehow transcend fandom and shift into something poetic. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me gives a basic primer on the band members, some of which I knew nothing about, and it makes you want to listen to the music, but unfortunately, it doesn't really transcend anything.

Part of the problem is that Big Star is famous for being obscure, and barely selling any records. They did not have much of a social impact, except for their influence on bands like The Replacements, R.E.M., the Bangles, Cheap Trick, and many others. Most of the interviewees in this movie have nothing more to talk about than how great Big Star was and what a shame it was that they didn't catch on.

Another problem is that the two geniuses behind the band, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, are both dead. The movie uses photos and archive footage to go a little into Bell's subsequent solo effort, "I Am the Cosmos," and illustrates how clearly it continued the Big Star sound. But it never gets a grasp of the true personalities of either Chilton or Bell. (Incidentally, Bell is another member of that infamous rock 'n' roll "27 club," or musicians who died at the age of 27. Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Dave Alexander of the Stooges, D. Boon of the Minutemen, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse are all members.)

The surviving band members, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Jody Stephens, and John Lightman are interviewed, but their comments are lost among a host of admiring fans and rock critics. Speaking of rock critics, another interesting story is the one about how Big Star played a kind of convention, with an audience made up exclusively of rock critics, and how the show was just amazing. That's really all there is to the story, but it's kind of fun to imagine. The great Lester Bangs was there, but he's also dead and cannot comment.

The thing that Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me does well is to play a lot of Big Star music, loud and clear, so that all can hear. They recorded three albums, #1 Record (1972), Radio City (1974), and Third/Sister Lovers (1978), all of them masterpieces, though Bell only worked on the first one. Their music is simple pop, but profoundly rich and complex. It's both vivacious and sad, and whatever emotion might be coming next on any album, or even within a song, is unpredictable. The power and beauty of songs like "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," and "Kangaroo" are reason enough to see this movie for fans, and non-fans alike.

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