In the period film Adventureland, released in 2009, we enter dream girl Kristen Stewart’s home at one point and there, sitting beside the record player, is a copy of Big Star’s second album, Radio City. It’s a cute scene, but it’s also bullshit. There weren’t any teenage girls with a copy of Radio City in 1987.
“The only things I know about going on in the ‘80s were [REM’s] Mike Mills and Peter Buck talking about the band, and some other folks,” says Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, calling the Straight from Ardent Studios, in Memphis. “But I don’t know that it’s likely that someone would have it on their shelf.”
An impeccably polite man, Stephens seems amused by the film’s flattering historical revisionism. He also points out that author Rick Moody has a character heading to Max’s Kansas City for a Big Star concert in his ‘70s-set novel The Ice Storm, which says way more about Rick Moody than anyone in the book. Stephens allows that maybe “the author was just a cool guy and wanted to stick us in there.”
The point is that Big Star actually tanked, majorly, when the band was kicking around Memphis in the early ‘70s. These days, it’s your favourite band’s favourite band, and maybe yours, too. And if you’re not a devotee, pretty much anyone with an interest in music is aware of the mammoth impact Big Star ultimately had. But it took a while.
”It was a unique sort of happening in the scheme of things,” Stephens says. “That this band gets together, does three records, breaks up, and an audience develops over word-of-mouth over the next 18, 20 years.” Or as Robyn Hitchcock puts it in the new documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me: “To me, Big Star was like some letter that was posted in 1971 that arrived in 1985. It’s like something that got lost in the mail.”
If it’s not quite as simple as that, the film (screening at the Rio Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday [July3-4]) does a smashing job of filling in the finer detail, while adding flesh to the mythic dimensions of a story shot through with failure, madness, addiction, death, and some of the most beautiful rock music ever committed to tape. It seems odd that it’s taken this long for the band to get its own documentary—every cult figure from Jandek to Jobriath has been captured on film by now, and Big Star smokes any of them in terms of influence—but there’s also something poignant and weirdly Big Star-ish about the timing.
“It was hard to get through the sadness of that period, because we just kept losing people,” Stephens says, softly, of the four or so years between producer Danielle McCarthy floating the project and finishing it. Singer-guitarist Alex Chilton, original bassist Andy Hummel, and legendary wildman-producer Jim Dickinson are just three of the people who died along the way. “But anyway,” he says, “it makes it that much more important that she started when she did and she got these people on film. They were all really important parts of what took place.”
While Hummel and Dickinson both give great interviews—Dickinson is a small feature all to himself—Chilton is amply represented through reams of amazing archival material, including 16mm footage of the first lineup recording its debut album.
Ditto for Big Star’s other major partner, Chris Bell. A brilliant but troubled figure who died at 27, Bell was the band’s original architect, and the story of his one-and-only solo 45 release, an epic slab of electric melancholy called “I Am the Cosmos”, provides the film with one of its most affecting sections. It also gives Stephens the chance, in a roundabout way, to perfectly sum up the appeal of Big Star and everything else that flew in its strange orbit.
“Where do you come up with the line: ‘Every night I tell myself, I am the cosmos, I am the wind, but that don’t get you back again’?” he asks, quoting the song’s heroically sad opening verse. “Wow. Holy cow. That’s powerful. It’s all just so wonderfully dark, but it’s a dark that you really welcome.”
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me screens at the Rio Theatre on Wednesday (July 3) at 7:00 PM, and again on Thursday (July 4) in a double bill with Dazed and Confused.