When My Big Star's Beside Me
Cult-legend rock doc returns to Austin
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori's moving documentary on Big Star, the fabled proto-power-pop band whose original commercial failure contrasts their massive influence upon subsequent generations of listeners and artists, makes its official Austin debut at the Alamo Ritz on July 21. But the film's local connections go back a little further. An early edit screened at South by Southwest in 2012, two years after band co-founder Alex Chilton's sudden death caused a scheduled SXSW showcase to become an impromptu all-star tribute show (footage from which is featured in the film).
Although fairly traditional in its presentation, Nothing Can Hurt Me transcends rock-bio cliches in its poignant meditation on the seminal Memphis combo's short life and enduring body of work. The film makes effective use of Big Star's sublimely bittersweet, emotionally raw songs, and manages to make a virtue of the filmmakers' lack of access to the interview-shy Chilton and troubled co-frontman Chris Bell, who died in a car crash in 1978. Instead, much of the narrative is delivered through the eyes of a colorful assortment of talking-head witnesses – an appropriate approach, given that much of the story involves the band's effect upon others.
While many tellings of Big Star's history focus on the group's hard career luck and its principals' personal travails – including Bell's struggles with drugs and depression, and Chilton's wilderness years as contrary, willfully perverse cult icon – Nothing Can Hurt Me places equal emphasis on the band's posthumous rediscovery, giving the story an inspirational uplift that balances its darker elements.
"That was not a conscious choice so much as a conclusion we arrived at," says DeNicola, who first discovered Big Star in the early Nineties as a college deejay in Chilton's adopted hometown of New Orleans. "The more we learned about the band and the times they were living in, it seemed as if there was no other way for their fate to have unfolded, which is a beautiful thing. It was as if they inadvertently traded commercial success in their time for a lasting musical legacy."
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me screens at 1:05pm on Sunday, July 21, and 10:30pm, Monday, July 22, at the Alamo Drafthouse at the Ritz (320 E. Sixth). Visit www.drafthouse.com for complete details and tickets, and read our extended interview with DeNicola at austinchronicle.com/screens.