(2012) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Jody Stephens, Jim Dickinson, Alex Chilton, Ken Stringfellow, Chris Stamey, Rick Clark, Mike Mills, Alexis Taylor, Tav Falco, David Bell, Sara Stewart, John Fry, Carole Manning, Steve Rhea, Andy Hummel, Richard Rosebrough. Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
In many ways Big Star was the ultimate cult band. They only released three sparsely-distributed albums from 1972-78 before fracturing apart, but those albums! That music! It’s some of the greatest music written during the rock era, and nearly every musician with any reverence for rock and roll in the 35 years since then has been influenced by their sound – from REM and the jangle pop of the 80s to the Replacements and the punks of the 90s to Hot Chip and the electropop of the 21st Century.
The band came out of Memphis, whose rock and roll legacy has tended to lean towards the blues and Southern boogie so when these guys appeared it must have turned a head or two. At the front was Alex Chilton, the boy wonder who had a number one hit in his teens with the Box Tops, and Chris Bell, a lonely and melancholy genius who worked at Ardent Studios (the band’s home base and source of their record label) as an engineer. Bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens rounded out the line-up.
Their first album, #1 Record, got great critical acclaim but Ardent, whose distribution was handled by the soul label Stax which was looking to make in-roads in the pop and rock markets – or should I say mis-handled – often frustrated consumers who read glowing reviews in the press but would then write the band to ask where they could buy the album which very often wouldn’t be in the bins. The band didn’t have a clue where to find them either.
Bell would wind up quitting over the lack of support for the band from their label. He was also hurt about Chilton getting the lion’s share of the attention, despite his own significant contributions to the Big Star sound. He’d go on to a checkered post-Big Star career, recording I Am the Cosmos – an amazing album that is essentially the lost Big Star album – but perishing in a car accident before it was released.
The band soldiered on as a trio, releasing Radio City in 1974 only to see nearly all of the albums that were pressed left in a warehouse that later burned with the albums in them, although some copies apparently survived and made it overseas. Recording sessions for a third album for the band, now down to Chilton and Stephens (with session musicians augmenting the two) showed Chilton’s frustration. He almost deliberately sabotaged the songs and made them unlistenable although a select few of them – like Stephens’ “For You” – were still full of ragged beauty. The third album, variously titled Third and Sister Lovers never got an official release during the band’s lifetime although bootlegged copies were available pretty in a widespread fashion (it finally was given an official release in the 90s by Rykodisc).
The band never got the due that they deserved while they were alive – Chilton passed away in 2010, Hummel not long after and Bell, as I mentioned, in 1978 (Stephens, the only surviving band member, continues to work for Ardent today) although their cult status followed them around for years. Chilton, somewhat embittered by the experience I think, flat-out ignored requests to play Big Star songs during his solo shows and more or less disowned the band until a surprise reunion concert with Stephens (with Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer filling out the band) in 1993 at the University of Missouri, which led to a tour which led to another album although by then the magic was clearly gone.
Still, their memory lives on in all the music that they recorded (the best-known of which is “In the Street,” the opening title track to That 70s Show and the oft-covered ”September Gurls” which was the closest they got to a hit) and all the music that they inspired.
The documentary is clearly a labor of love; they had very little archival footage to work with and so as a result it has a bit of a talking head feel to it but the interviews are in the main, incredibly interesting and moving – there was a lot of pain associated with the band and when you watch Chris Bell’s sister Sara Stewart break down a little, saying in a soft, hurt voice “I hated the band” to which her brother David Bell said in a comforting voice “I know. You’d rather have him back than have the music out there,” your heart breaks just a little. Still in all, you can listen to the music of Big Star – most of you probably have never heard it – and be dazzled. I hope that a lot of people get to see this documentary mainly because it would be ironic and fitting that this wonderful, inspiring music be exposed to a greater number of people long after the band that recorded it is gone.
REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some heartfelt and heartrending interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of performance or archival video.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name Big Star doesn’t refer to Chilton’s success with the Box Tops nor is it an egotistical prognostication of the band’s future – rather they named themselves after a Memphis-area grocery store chain, one of which was near Ardent Studios.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has embarked on the festival circuit after a strong start at SXSW.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Control
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Off-Shoring Part 1