Big Star Documentary Chronicles Rock's Most Durable Band (Q&A)

 

The feature-length documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, six years in the making and officially out today (July 1), was a labor of love for producer Danielle McCarthy and writer/directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori, all fans of the Memphis band -- led most notably by the late cult figure Alex Chilton. The very definition of rock critic darlings, Big Star's string of three albums for the indie Ardent label -- ‘72’s cheekily titled #1 Record, ‘74’s Radio City and Third, which wasn’t released until 1978, long after the band splintered, and later became known as Sister Lovers -- turned out to be the harbingers of a college/alternative/post-punk pop-rock explosion that included bands ranging from R.E.M., the Replacements and the dB’s across the pond to Teenage Fanclub, Hot Chip and Robyn Hitchcock. All sing Big Star’s praises.

The film, which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures and was partially financed through Kickstarter, offers a comprehensive look at the band’s history, marked by a series of tragic missteps and bungled opportunities, most notably the death of co-founder Chris Bell at the age of 27 in a 1978 car accident. The band’s longevity and legacy was cemented when they were featured at an Ardent-sponsored National Association of Rock Writers gathering over Memorial Day Weekend in 1973, with the label’s wild-eyed promo chief John King flying in about 150 of the world’s top journos at the time, including the late Lester Bangs, a teenage Cameron Crowe and Richard Meltzer, while attendees like Lenny Kaye, Jaan Uhelszki, Billy Altman, Pete Tomlinson and Ross Johnson offer their current perspectives on camera. The critical community’s support in print kept the band’s music alive, to be picked up by subsequent generations four decades after the fact, even if it had no effect on the group’s commercial demise. 

There’s a bittersweet quality to the film, with so many of its interview subjects now passed since the project started, giving the movie, like Memphis itself, a feeling of being populated with the ghosts of wild man producer Jim Dickinson, Hummel and original Ardent staffers like art director Carole Manning (who designed the #1 Album package and took the cover photo) and Steve Rhea, a drummer in pre-Big Star groups like Jynx, Rock City and Icewater with Bell and Hummel.

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Drummer Jody Stephens -- the last surviving member of the original group after the deaths of Chilton and original bassist Andy Hummel, both 59, within months of each other in 2010 -- who took Rhea’s place in what became Big Star, continues to work to this day at Ardent, founded by legendary producer/engineer John Fry, who nurtured Big Star by giving them free rein to record and experiment at the studio. Stephens, who also performs as Big Star Third with The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, Chris Stamey, Mike Mills and Mitch Easter, among others, chatted about his personal reactions to the movie and the endurance of the band’s music.

The Hollywood Reporter: Big Star always does things backwards. Unlike Spinal Tap, it’s the drummer who survives.

Jody Stephens: People will describe the life of Big Star as tragic, but for me, it was a really good time and an incredible adventure. The only real tragedy is that Alex, Chris and Andy are all gone. It just increases my gratitude to Danielle McCarthy and the idea she had for doing this documentary. It didn’t come a minute too soon.

THR: Alex’s death just as SXSW was getting underway in 2010 certainly cast a pall over the proceedings.

Stephens: The outpouring of care and affection for Alex was amazing. When it happened, all of a sudden in the middle, everyone started looking at their phones, getting the news that Alex had passed away. There were so many tributes from artists there, including Ray Davies and Cheap Trick.

THR: You are the bearer of the Big Star torch at this point, the last man standing.

Stephens: I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without Chris Stamey, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Mike Mills and Mitch Easter, among others. I lean on them a lot. It’s a shared pursuit. I don’t think of it that way. It would be too much weight for me. Only Alex, Chris and Andy would be up for that task. It’s a mammoth undertaking, with string players needing to be rehearsed, and a variety of guest artists. It’s a pretty amazing community of people.

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THR: The durability of Big Star’s music four decades later has been remarkable.

Stephens: It’s amazing how it just keeps going. I’m pretty fortunate in that regard because I can’t see not doing this. I love the music and the people involved too much. I’ve been really lucky that John King got the record to music writers, who made a huge difference over the years. We did three albums, then broke up and waited about 18 years before doing another, and there was an audience. I’ve been able to take advantage of that because I’ve worked full-time at Ardent Studios since 1987 with John Fry, who gives me time off to play these gigs. The shows don’t pay much, but they’re a damn good time.

THR: What do you do at Ardent?

Stephens: We have a small record label, Ardent Music, with a pop-folk four-piece band with great harmonies named Star & Micey and a new release, Admirers, which is a Mike James project, which comes out July 23 on our label, with distribution through RedEye, and those folks are pretty amazing. It’s music you won’t expect from us, with plenty of Bryan Ferry, Eno, Bowie and electronic dance music elements, a fascinating record to listen to.

THR: Do you have a favorite among the three original Big Star albums?

Stephens: Those records explain the life of Big Star, from beginning, middle to almost end. It’s impossible to draw a conclusion about the band unless you listen to at least the three original albums. Even Big Star in Space helps color what the group was about. There’s this innocence on the first record, the second is a bit more sophisticated, and then the third album is melancholy and emotionally raw. It really is a beginning, middle and end.

THR: Chris Bell comes across in the movie as a tragic figure who created the sonic template for that first album.

Stephens: He was definitely the guiding force on #1 Record in terms of production values. Obviously, Alex was a major contributor and a big part of the color of that record. But it was Chris’ vision.

THR: Someone in the movie describes Big Star’s music as wrenching beauty from pain.

Stephens: There was a certain emotional stake, but I was a pretty happy guy. I appreciated just being there. 

Twitter: @THRMusic

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