By Adam Ellsworth.
If you’ve seen a rock and roll documentary recently, chances are its main thesis was something like this: “this artist/band was GREAT, but you’ve never heard of him/her/them.”
A few months ago, in an article for Grantland, Steven Hyden referred to these types of documentaries as “Sugar Man” movies. He was of course referencing the Oscar-winning 2012 film Searching for Sugar Man, which introduced American music fans to the 1970s singer-songwriter Rodriguez, an immensely talented musician who had zero commercial success in his homeland, though for reasons that aren’t completely understood, lots of success in South Africa and Australia.
Other movies that fall under the “Sugar Man” category are 2008’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil and this year’s A Band Called Death.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is playing at Cambridge’s Brattle Theatre from July 19–22 and is also currently available On Demand and at iTunes, is sort of a “Sugar Man” movie but with a bit of a twist. Surely, there are many people who have never heard of ‘70s power poppers Big Star, but you hardly need a PhD in rock history to know the band and their music. In fact, Big Star has been “famous for not being famous” since at least the 1990s (arguably, they’ve been “famous for not being famous” since their debut album came out in 1972).
But here’s the twist: even though most rock fans own (or at least know) a few of Big Star’s albums, and even though most rock fans know that Big Star was a major influence on the likes of R.E.M., the Replacements, and other seminal alternative bands, and even though most rock fans know that Big Star included the late Alex Chilton (aka: the guy who spent the late ‘60s in the Box Tops and sang “The Letter”), most rock fans know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING of the Big Star story.
At least that’s how I felt while watching the movie. I couldn’t believe it really. Here’s a band I’ve been listening to for more than a decade, whose music has always had the power to absolutely level me, and it never even occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about them! And I’m the kind of person who looks into the bands I like. It’s just that until now, there has never really been a definitive account of the band.
Crucially, the film introduces the producers, label people, friends, and family who are as integral (and interesting) as the actual members of Big Star. Its greatest triumph though is it shines some well-deserved light on the band’s founder, guitarist/vocalist Chris Bell. Bell only appeared on the band’s debut, #1 Record, but he was vital to the band’s sound, and he has been sorely overlooked by history. That the film manages to shine appropriate light on Bell, without taking anything away from Alex Chilton and his very real contributions, shows that Big Star, at their best, really were bigger than one person. They were a true band.