The Ballad of Big Star: Squeaky Wheel Screens “Nothing Can Hurt Me”

big star

It has been a killer summer of Squeaky Wheel events, and here is one more: a screening of the Big Star documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me,” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night (August 20) at 712 Main.

I’m not going to lie and say I was a Big Star die-hard for years and years, or that I held a tattered copy of “#1 Record” close to my heart as the band rose to mythical prominence. I did not truly listen to them until I was in college, and by then, Alex Chilton’s power pop gods were already beloved. On some level, I think I avoided listening to Big Star for a long time, since I found the “best band you’ve never heard” talk a bit ponderous.

But once I actually did listen, I quickly fell for songs like “Thirteen” and “September Gurls,” and the band’s shoulda-been-a-contender backstory suddenly seemed endearing, even downright moving. Meeting and chatting with Buffalo Spree contributor Bruce Eaton, the author of a 33 1/3 series book on the band’s second album, “Radio City,” only furthered my appreciation. (See Bruce’s great Big Star blog for more info on the book, and his contribution to the film.)

My interest culminated in a jaunt to the Seneca Niagara Casino’s Bear’s Den Showroom on November 27, 2009, to see Chilton lead his original band, the Box Tops, for an intimate performance of old favorites like “The Letter.” It was a slightly strange, wholly unforgettable performance; I’ll never forget arriving with my father and spotting Alex at the bar, relaxing with a cigarette.

I wish I would have said hello, since a few months later, Chilton was dead. (Here is an obit written by Bruce for salon.com.)

Knowing that Chilton is gone, just like Big Star bandmates Chris Bell and Andy Hummel, coupled with the band’s story of never quite achieving success (commercially, at least), makes “Nothing Can Hurt Me” a somewhat somber experience. But it’s also a thrilling one.

Drew Denicola’s documentary is certainly not perfect — Chilton remains a typically obscure figure; I found this article on his last days a more insightful portrait — but it is probably the finest demonstration yet of what makes the band so beloved, and its legacy so undeniably important. (The article mentions the Niagara Falls show.)

In fact, the most interesting figure in the film turns out to be Chris Bell, not Alex Chilton. The sequence detailing the recording of his great song “I am the Cosmos” is a stunner, and his brother and sister have much to add about Bell’s short, difficult life.

There is also the abundance of archival footage, oodles of band photography, and interviews with some of the many characters who were part of the band’s Memphis universe. In short, it’s a very good documentary (I’d go 3 1/2 stars), one that works as both an introduction to the group as well as a nifty bit of nostalgia for those already in the know.

I love that Squeaky is bringing the film to town, and in a superb bonus, the aforementioned Bruce Eaton, whose voice can be heard and name seen in the movie, will be doing Q&A session.

I’m listening to “The Ballad of El Goodo” as I write this, and the song seems like the finest distillation of the Big Star story in the band’s catalog:

I’ve been built up and trusted

Broke down and busted

But they’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours

Just if we can

Just, ah, hold on

Hold on

Hold on

Hold on

 

Photo: Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel in “BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME,” a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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