The Ballad of Big Star
A work-in-progress premiere and supergroup performance pay tribute to the cult band
"It was a perfect storm that prevented Big Star from becoming a huge band." This is Danielle McCarthy, producer of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a new documentary about the seminal power-pop band's thwarted career and ongoing resurgence.
That many Americans recognize "In the Street" as the theme song to That '70s Show but have never heard of Big Star is evidence of the group's incurable obscurity. Big Star officially existed for three years, releasing three albums to rave reviews, #1 Record (1972), Radio City (1974), and later, Third (eventually released in 1978, and later under the name Sister Lovers). Set apart by genius audio production, mysterious frontman Alex Chilton, and a fervid cult following, Big Star was – to borrow a phrase from rough contemporaries the Flatlanders – more a legend than a band. As Bruce Eaton wrote in his book, Radio City, Big Star was also more a studio project than a touring group, which hurt its chances commercially. And it wasn't a cohesive unit at that; the original lineup – Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens – shed a member with each album release.
Ambitious in scope, Nothing Can Hurt Me digs into deeper contexts than the average music doc, encompassing Chilton's pre-Big Star musical pedigree as the face and voice of the Box Tops; the mentoring influence of engineer-producers John Fry and Jim Dickinson; the clubhouse atmosphere at Fry's Ardent Studios; the band's connection to photographer William Eggleston and other artists; Ardent's historic 1973 promotional stunt, the first-and-last Annual National Association of Rock Writers Convention; the decline of Big Star's would-be distributor, Stax Records; the post-Big Star solo careers; and a busy culture of reissues, reunions, and homages.
I spoke with Nothing Can Hurt Me's Brooklyn-based crew and assorted Big Star affiliates about the project. By late February, the filmmakers had distilled their footage into a three-hour movie. Since then, they've been chopping it down to 90 minutes for a work-in-progress print that will sneak preview during the South by Southwest Film Festival on Thursday, March 15. Following the screening will be an orchestral staging of the entire Third album presented by GSD&M, organized by musician and record producer Chris Stamey, and featuring the Tosca String Quartet and members of R.E.M., the Replacements, and the Posies, among others. (A limited number of single tickets for people without badges, passes, or wristbands will be available for purchase via the Paramount Theatre's website.)
The screening is the culmination of a six-year passion project started by McCarthy and buoyed by the Big Star fan community. The story has changed dramatically since production began because two central figures have died: Dickinson, the outspoken Memphis luminary who produced Third; and of course Chilton, who passed away on March 17, 2010, three days before he was scheduled to play a Big Star semi-reunion show at SXSW. The show then evolved into a tribute performance featuring Mills, John Doe, Evan Dando, and others.
McCarthy, a longtime fan, says she had the idea for the documentary while discussing Big Star over beers with a friend in Memphis, Tenn., in 2006. She was struck by the shocking failure of "The Ballad of el Goodo" and "September Gurls" to become radio hits as well as by the band's remarkable connection to Eggleston. A friend of Chilton's parents, Eggleston supplied the pictures for the front and back covers of Radio City, casually shot many other pictures of the band, and incorporated footage of Chilton into his 1974 film Stranded in Canton.
She was also drawn to the irony of Big Star as self-proclaimed Anglophiles in Memphis, obsessed with UK musicians who were themselves obsessed with the Memphis sound coming out of Big Star's own backyard. And yet they were surrounded by Memphis music. Big Star's record label and studio, Ardent, shared facilities and a distribution arrangement with soul label Stax – home of Booker T. & the MGs, Carla Thomas, and Isaac Hayes. Says McCarthy, "Stax wanted this rock brand and everything was on the up and up. When Big Star signed to Ardent, they were Stax artists. Then Columbia bought Stax, and they thought they were going to be huge." But Stax was going down the tubes. In the heyday of payola, Big Star was harnessed to a doomed distributor.
In 2007, McCarthy tracked down Ardent founder John Fry. Stephens, A&R man for Ardent and Big Star's founding drummer, put it to me this way: "Danielle gives John Fry a call and piques his interest, and before you know it, they're on a plane, John's rented a van, he's picking them up from the airport and taking them around to see Big Star-related sights and meet Big Star-related people."
McCarthy did some exploratory shooting and interviews then brought in Drew DeNicola to partner and to direct the film in 2008 and recruited producer Olivia Mori in 2010. Though the crew spent time with Chilton, he did not agree to be interviewed. He didn't say that he wouldn't at some later point; he just evaded the question, according to DeNicola. (Eventually, the filmmakers got permission to use sound from Eaton's audio interviews with Chilton.)
In March 2010, McCarthy and DeNicola were planning to attend SXSW to shoot around the Big Star show. "Alex didn't allow people to film any of the shows, so we were going to get other things, like audience reactions," says McCarthy. They heard about Chilton's death the night before they left.
"By the time I got off the plane, the tribute concert had already been put together," says DeNicola. McCarthy approached Fry and Stephens, warily, about recording the show. "Jody said, 'Yes, absolutely, you have to film it.' So we scrambled. We had two days to try to figure out how." They had one camera, no money, no crew, and no car. By luck, another documentary crew was going to the show to film Dwight Twilley, who was scheduled to open for Big Star. "They had a full budget, which was amazing to us because we're trying to make a documentary about the headliner and we had no money at all," says McCarthy. "Very graciously, their whole crew filmed the entire show for us. They gave us everything. Without them, we would've been royally screwed." DeNicola filmed interviews and rehearsals backstage.
Two months after SXSW, a Memphis tribute show was in the works. Again, the filmmakers found themselves with no means to shoot it, so they launched a Kickstarter campaign, becoming one of the first DIY documentaries to successfully do so. They made their goal within 24 hours and more than doubled it in two weeks. "It was so heartening," McCarthy says. "After all these years of trying to make this movie, there were people who wanted to see it and were willing to donate their own money to help fund it."
Among the filmmakers' discoveries were 16mm color film of Big Star rehearsing and recording #1 Record, shot by Hummel, and black-and-white footage shot in and around Ardent by people borrowing Eggleston's reel-to-reel video rig, the same Portapak camera used for Stranded in Canton, which he had modified for low-light indoor shooting. Fry also allowed access to Ardent's audio archives, which allowed them to create a sophisticated audio-collage soundtrack.
Fry, known for supporting Big Star, eventually took Nothing Can Hurt Me further under his wing: "I've worn a lot of hats. Everything from 'encourager' to introducing them to key figures and various musicians who have been influenced by Big Star, certainly helping a lot with the music clearances, to trying to come up with alternate mixes and masters that hadn't been heard before. Now I wear a bit of a film investor hat."
Discussing Memphis, Fry notes an important distinction: It is a recorded music capital of the world, opposed to the live music capital of the world in Austin. "I heard Jim Dickinson utter that one day ... Memphis being a town of labels." And Stephens adds, "Certainly the action and the industry and the livelihoods were being made in the studio, rather than the live venues."
The Big Star's Third live concept, which has been previously staged in Chapel Hill, is all about breaking out of the confines of the studio, to let the songs "out into the air," as Stamey puts it.
"When we opened up the string scores for these and played them for the first time ... it was a bit like opening a tomb – in the ancient city of Memphis, perhaps – and seeing the pharaohs come back to life, get up and cavort."
He says it's hard to know whether Chilton would like it or not. "I would hope that he'd have slipped unnoticed into the back of the room in a fedora and watched from a nosebleed perch at the back, and maybe smiled to himself at some point."
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Thursday, March 15, 7pm, Paramount