Big Star, Big Night

Tributes flowing for noted '70s' rock band

Drummer Jody Stephens (second from left) is the only surviving member of the classic Big Star rock band. Also pictured (from left) are Andy Hummel, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton.

Drummer Jody Stephens (second from left) is the only surviving member of the classic Big Star rock band. Also pictured (from left) are Andy Hummel, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton.

U.S. Premiere of ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’

Indie Memphis Film Festival opening night ‘Gala’ screening at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Tickets: $15, or $25 (includes admission to after-party at Ardent Studios). Visit www.indiememphis.com

Having inspired a Grammy-winning box set, international tribute concerts and now a documentary film, has Big Star — the Memphis rock band that achieved legendary status long after the commercial failure of its 1970s recordings — reached the apex of its influence and posthumous popularity?

"Just as soon as you think it's peaked, it hasn't," said Jody Stephens, 60, drummer and only surviving member of the Big Star lineup that recorded the revered early 1970s power pop masterpieces, #1 Record and Radio City, as well as the more ghostly final studio album, Third/Sister Lovers.

Saturday, Stephens will participate in a Big Star-themed show in New York, and in November, he travels to Amsterdam for a "Songs of Big Star" event with numerous guest vocalists. In between, there's a gig closer to home.

Thursday night, Stephens will join Big Star engineer and Ardent Studios founder John Fry, filmmakers Danielle McCarthy and Drew DeNicola and other members of the extended Big Star "family" at the Playhouse on the Square for what is being billed as the official U.S. premiere of "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," a years-in-the-making definitive documentary portrait of the band's origins, music and legacy.

The 6:30 p.m. screening at Playhouse on the Square is the "gala" event of the opening night of the 15th annual Indie Memphis Film Festival, which continues through Nov. 4. (For a full festival schedule, visit indiememphis.com).

"Nothing Can Hurt Me" — the title is a borrowed lyric from "Big Black Car," a melancholy song by Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton that appeared on Sister Lovers — debuted as a "work in progress" in March at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas; in July, the "in progress" version screened here at the Studio on the Square, in an invitation-only event sponsored by the Memphis Grammy chapter. The movie had its official world premiere this past weekend at the prestigious BFI London Film Festival.

"Nothing Can Hurt Me" is an independently and partly crowd-financed labor of love that owes its existence to three Brooklyn-based Big Star fanatics: McCarthy (producer), DeNicola (director) and Olivia Mori (producer and co-director). Mori is unable to attend the Memphis screening, but editor Christopher Branca and animator Ted Wiggin, who created graphics for the film, will join McCarthy and DeNicola here.

The absence of some people will be as noticeable as the presence of others. Big Star co-founder Chris Bell was killed in a 1978 car crash at age 27, but many key figures in the band's history died after the filmmakers began working on the documentary, including Big Star mainstay and contrarian rock-and-roll genius Alex Chilton (who died March 17, 2010, at 59); bass player Andy Hummel (July 19, 2010, 59); Sister Lovers producer Jim Dickinson (Aug. 15, 2009, 67); and Carole Manning (Nov. 3, 2010, 59), who shot many iconic photographs of the band."It's so very touching, to see them up there on the screen," said Stephens.

The 112-minute documentary covers more than the birth, life, death and rediscovery of Big Star. It necessarily tells the stories of the band's most creative members, Chilton and Bell ("Chris is in every way a tragic figure," Dickinson says in the film), and touches on the British Invasion and punk rock trends that book-ended the band's existence, as well as the Memphis soul that influenced Chilton's work with his pre-Big Star band, the Box Tops. "It becomes this sort of history of rock and roll," said DeNicola, 36. "The story opened into larger, broader themes — the inherent commerciality of rock and roll, and how do you make art in a commercial medium?"

Aimed at pleasing both the uninitiated and the longtime fan, and constructed from vintage sources and new footage featuring Matthew Sweet, Mitch Easter, members of R.E.M. and many Memphians, "Nothing Can Hurt Me" is a model of purposeful and coherent documentary storytelling. At one point, the gently crooned line "plans fail every day" from Bell's "You and Your Sister" is smartly isolated in the sound mix, to underscore the singer's weary sense of futility and frustration.

Among those interviewed, Memphis drummer Ross Johnson comments that Big Star's songs represent "pain transformed into beauty," while British singer Robyn Hitchcock says that discovering the band's music years after it was recorded was like receiving "a letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985 ... Like something that got lost in the mail."DeNicola said the music of Big Star demonstrates that "there's something beyond knowing something by heart" — that worthwhile art can continue to be meaningful no matter how familiar it may be. After working on the film for close to three years, "I haven't tired of the music one bit — which just floored me, really," he said. "That's a theme we cover in the film, that they made durable music, music that can really last."

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