After a seven-year journey marked by shock and sadness as well as discovery and elation, a passion project conceived during a late-night conversation at Midtown’s Lamplighter Lounge comes full circle with the opening of “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” on two screens at the Malco Studio on the Square.
Directed by Drew DeNicola, codirected by Olivia Mori and “originated” by producer Danielle McCarthy (to quote the film’s credits), “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” is both a smart, definitive documentary and the ultimate love letter to its subject, the Memphis power-pop band known as Big Star, a group that proved vastly more popular and influential after its dissolution than when its original lineup was active in the 1970s.
The movie had its U.S. premiere Nov. 1 at the Playhouse on the Square, during the Indie Memphis Film Festival. An encore screening was held three nights later at the Circuit Playhouse, on the festival’s closing night.
Now, “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” returns Friday to begin a regular run of at least a week at the Studio on the Square, the five-screen cinema just a few blocks east of the bar where the love of Bluff City rock and roll was as intoxicating as the brew on tap for visiting Brooklyn filmmaker McCarthy.
Drummer Jody Stephens, the last survivor of the original Big Star lineup, will attend and answer questions after the 7 p.m. and 7:40 p.m. screenings Friday. The movie also is available as a video-on-demand offering via iTunes and other pay-per-view outlets.
“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” also opens Friday in Nashville and Pittsburgh; its New York and Los Angeles theatrical runs began last week. More cities will follow in the coming weeks, with European dates set for later in the year.
McCarthy characterizes “Nothing Can Hurt Me” as “an attempt to spread the word on Big Star on a grand scale.” So far, reviews have been almost entirely positive, as is fitting for a movie about a band credited with three albums — #1 Record (1972), Radio City (1974) and Third/Sister Lovers (1978) — that are regarded as three of the greatest in rock history.
The film “captures what it’s like to discover music so good it seems as if it were made just for you,” according to The New York Times; it has “the power to move even those who prefer Mozart or Lil Wayne,” according to NPR. In other words, the movie seems to be reaching “the uninitiated as well as the core fans,” said DeNicola, 37.
Sometimes, a movie marks the peak of a revival of interest in its subject. “It doesn’t seem to be that way with Big Star,” said McCarthy, 34. “It’s one of those things that keeps going. It’s pretty surprising. It doesn’t seem to ever exhaust itself, so who knows?”
With a humorously boastful name borrowed from a Memphis grocery store, Big Star was led by singer-songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, with Andy Hummel on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. The sensitive Bell left after the first album, while the third so-called Big Star LP is more or less a Chilton solo project, with Stephens on drums and a large cast of supporting musicians.
A funny thing happened on the way to obscurity, however: The Big Star albums became a signifier of cool and a shared secret among growing numbers of musicians and music aficionados, influencing R.E.M., the Replacements and other important bands. Even those who’ve never heard of Big Star may know the song “In the Street,” adopted as the theme song for the hit sitcom “That ’70s Show,” which ran from 1998 to 2006 on the Fox network and remains ubiquitous in reruns.
“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” has its origins in a 2006 musical pilgrimage made to Memphis by McCarthy, a Big Star devotee.
During a “late-night drinking session at the Lamplighter, we were geeking out about Big Star, and I mentioned casually that they would make a great subject for a documentary, and Winston said, ‘Why don’t you make it?’” Winston, in this case, was new friend Winston Eggleston, son of famous Memphis photographer William Eggleston, a member of the local “art-damaged” social circle that included Chilton.
Inebriation fermented into inspiration, and in 2007, McCarthy returned to Memphis to shoot interviews with Big Star producer Jim Dickinson and a few others. The project languished, however, until she recruited DeNicola, a more experienced Brooklyn filmmaker, to help her cut a trailer from her footage.
Also a devout Big Star fan, DeNicola and another Brooklyn Big Star acolyte, Olivia Mori, brought new energy as well as filmmaking proficiency to the project, which was revived in earnest with a successful 2010 Kickstarter campaign that impressed other investors, including John Fry, founder of Memphis’ Ardent Studio and producer/engineer on the Big Star sessions. (Fry is credited as one of the film’s executive producers.)
“I was trying to not just make this a band bio but a meditation on other elements of American culture, and even the whole idea of making art,” DeNicola said. “There’s a nostalgic trip in the film,” he said, referring to the unsentimental original meaning of “nostalgia,” a word formed from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain.”
“The story is really about ghosts; there are a lot of ghosts in this story — the past weighs heavily,” DeNicola said.
Bell was killed at 27 in a 1978 car crash, while Chilton died on March 17, 2010, at age 59, without ever agreeing to an interview with the filmmakers. As a result, the documentary is “like ‘Citizen Kane’ — you keep hearing the story from different sources, but not from a primary source,” DeNicola said.
Other key figures in the extended Big Star family died after being interviewed or included in footage but before they had a chance to see the film. These included Dickinson; Hummel; Big Star promotions man Stephen Rhea; band photographer Carole Manning; and Lux Interior of The Cramps, a New York horror-punk band produced by Chilton.
“It made us all sick to our stomachs, honestly,” McCarthy said. “For a time we didn’t know what we were going to do.”
Ultimately, the only thing to do was to “move forward,” McCarthy said — to complete the film as a tribute as well as a history — “to spread the gospel, to tell the story of Big Star and also to tell the story of that scene in Memphis. Memphis is really a character in the film, the musical and artistic history of the town at that time.”
DeNicola said that Big Star — a band that merged British Invasion songcraft, Southern soulfulness and a poet’s melancholy — became a constant reference in record reviews in the 1980s and especially the 1990s.
“How could that be, when at the same time nobody (in the mainstream public) had ever heard of them? That’s a weird disjunction I wanted to rectify. As people continue to discover Big Star’s records over time, they’ll have this companion piece, the documentary, to turn to, to learn more about the band.”