Directed by: Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
Starring: Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, John Auer, Jody Stephens
I have to preface this review by mentioning that I’ve never been a huge fan of Big Star. I like their music, but have never been enamored with them to the point their cult status demands. Because of this, I’m obviously not the target audience for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the documentary that attempts to trace their days as obscure Memphis critical darlings in the ‘70s to the revered, influential band they’re seen as today. This exclusivity is inherent in the material, since it’s a rarity for the Average Joe to love anything as much as a documentary filmmaker, a person who loves something enough to dedicate months and years of their lives to telling its story. On top of this, if you’re already a self-identified Big Star fan, you’ve likely already bought your ticket, and nothing I say about the film will change what you think of the movie, let alone the band.
That being said, looked at as filmmaking, Nothing Can Hurt Me is your basic music doc. My personal high watermark for music docs will likely always be The Who’s The Kids Are Alright (1979), a movie painting a picture of a band’s career through little more than concert and TV footage. There’s little of that inventiveness here, with zero deviation from the standard music-doc formula, showing the band as they form, struggle, implode and eventually move on, all while their popularity and reverence slowly grows. The film consists almost exclusively of talking-head interviews, a bevy of old photographs and a surprising lack of archival footage (though the band’s lack of mainstream popularity likely has a lot to do with this).
Inherently, it’s a fascinating story of overlooked genius, but directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori spend too much time trying to convince everyone of Big Star’s greatness, occasionally falling into fits of hyperbole. On top of this, their great weakness as storytellers truly damages the film. Aspects of the Big Star story — like member Chris Bell’s departure from the band — are confusing and muddled. The film’s painstakingly and impressively researched, but there’s almost too many interviews and too much information. DeNicola and Mori are perhaps too close to the subject and don’t know what to cut — a frustrating point in a 110-minute movie. Too often, Nothing Can Hurt Me reminds me of an old Kids in the Hall skit about a dead vaudeville performer, in which they interview people like “an old guy who used to watch a lot of TV.” There are times where the film simply wanders and the meat of the story is lost. Nevertheless, there are moments—specifically in interviews with Bell’s family — that DeNicola and Mori go beyond music and touch on the humanity of Big Star’s members, and it shows you what the documentary could’ve been. These flashes are there, though often difficult to find, but for those who love Big Star, this will hardly matter. Rated PG-13 for drug references and brief strong language.
The Fine Arts Theatre will screenBig Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Thursday, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m.
In Brief: An extensive, deeply researched look at the career of the commercially ignored but critically acclaimed Memphis rock band Big Star. The film is an obvious work of fans and a must-see for those who already love the band. But its subject matter, combined with some faulty storytelling, makes this doc a difficult sell for the uninitiated.