Sunday 17 November 2013


(Drew DiNicola & Olivia Mori, 2012)

Big Star are the cult American band, virtually unknown while they existed (though each of their records was glowingly reviewed) but developing a devout following of obsessives throughout the 80s and 90s until their status changed, and they now seem one of the most influential bands of the last few decades of rock music. That in itself wouldn't make for much of a film, but the fact that they were a fascinating mixture of personalities, and emerged from Memphis, a complex and interesting city in its own right, and one absolutely essential to the history of American popular music, makes their story a lot more enthralling. Then there is the music: DiNicola and Mori are wise enough to know that every ten minutes or so they need to stow the talking heads and just let the music tell the story - then Big Star do the rest, and they do it superbly.
Formed by Memphis rich kid Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops wunderkind Alex Chilton in the early '70s, Big Star emerged seemingly fully formed with the sublime Number One Record. The music on that album is almost perfect - exciting, muscular and precise, its melancholy heart jostling with an exhilarating appreciation for the possibilities inherent in the dynamics of rock music. It didn't sell. Bell, depressed by the way most of the credit went to Chilton, left the band, and Chilton drove them on to the even better second album, Radio City, before a shrinking line-up staggered through excess and self-indulgence to record their dark and fractured Third/Sister Lovers. After that Chilton squandered his talent in a series of jokey provocations, Bell tried in vain to get a deal and ended up working in a restaurant, and the legend of Big Star grew.
This film details the lifespan of the band, features lengthy interviews with bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens, makes excellent use of some fine archive photos, and devotes a long time to the lives of the principals after Big Star ended. The recent reunion tours are depicted as a nice little reward to Chilton and Stephens, years after the fact, and a line of rock critics queue up to explain quite why they never had the success they deserved even as the film does a solid job of explaining the promotional and distribution issues responsible.
The early death of Bell - in a car accident at 27 - and Chilton's death in 2010 make this a story with two ghostly absences at its centre, though a couple of wry Chilton radio interviews feature, and producers, engineers, relatives and friends fill out many of the crucial details of the story. It is a sad story, really, one of potential left unfulfilled and thwarted ambition, but it is also full of humour and fascinating people.
It is never depressing, chiefly because the music is so good. For all that some time is devoted to Bell's issues with Christianity and his sexuality, every time a Big Star song plays loud, everything feels just fine. Such is the power of great art.

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