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Everyone has a favorite band that no one seems to know about. During the defining years of late adolescence and early adulthood, generational music becomes part of your identity at a time when identity changes rapidly and without provocation. These identities, these very different people that seem to spring up and fade away while hormones rage and emotions flutter, are vigorously defended by those that hold them because they never quite vanish. There are always shades of the people we were in the person that we are.
This is why when there is such a strong connection to an act that goes unsung, when their success is just out of reach, when a band goes their separate ways due to myriad reasons both personal and financial, the true and honest fans will band together into tight associations that strive to keep the music alive. They pass out recordings to their friends, post on Internet forums, discuss the small canon of work exhaustively, just to validate their love of music that spoke to the person they used to be. Music simply transcends and permeates a life in a way other art forms don’t.
Big Star is a band like many—a great group of talented musicians that never quite got the recognition it deserved. “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” tells its familiar story in depth, in a way that will appeal to the fans that loved it most.
Most people will know Big Star, whether they realize it or not. The band was highly influential on a number of more successful artists; some that have paid their respects by recording cover versions of Big Star songs. Last year, Counting Crows released a cover album that closed with Big Star’s excellent “The Ballad of El Goodo.” “Out in the Street” served as the theme song for “That ’70s Show,” making it instantly recognizable to a large group of Americans who likely think it was written by Cheap Trick.
In some ways, Big Star is similar to Bob Dylan—some of its songs are better when recorded by someone else. But even those original recordings were highly praised by rock critics at the time. Rolling Stone called #1 Record one of the best albums of 1972 and Billboard thought every track “could be a single.” And yet, because of distribution issues with their record label Ardent and its parent company Stax, the album didn’t reach the ears that it needed to become a major record. This lack of success led to high tensions in the band. Big Star released two more albums amid tumultuous years of members fighting and leaving and then returning and leaving again. The critical reception remained high. These albums were, and still are, really good records.
The Big Star story isn’t a unique one. There are countless talented bands that never made it due to similar circumstances. What makes the documentary worthwhile, beyond giving Big Star fans a deeper look at their favorite band, is how it frames the story against Memphis in the ’70s. It gives a wide picture of the Memphis recording scene, of the culture of the city and the things that happened in the streets and bars and back alleys of a genuine and powerful music scene. Back when T.G.I. Friday’s wasn’t a bland family-friendly franchise, and it was possible to make a living as a music critic, Big Star was part of a larger lifestyle. There was no better time for rock and roll than the 1970s. The film does a good job of placing the problems that plagued Big Star in the context of the time period.
“Big Star: No One Can Hurt Me” is a film that will appeal primarily to Big Star fans. Audience members unfamiliar with the music may find themselves lost in the cavalcade of interviews. At nearly two hours, the documentary also may be a little long for newcomers to the band. However, given the spotlight the filmmakers shine on the music, anyone with a taste for rock music will have their interest piqued. If you haven’t heard Big Star, you’re likely to find a new old band to pester your friends about. If you have, you’ll get keen insight into the inner workings of some very talented musicians. All in all, the film makes for a good Saturday night.
Mise en Scenesters presents "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," 8:30 p.m., Aug. 10, Barking Legs Theater 1307 Dodds Ave. $7