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NEW YORK — One of the greatest power-pop bands ever was never pop: Big Star, the beautiful-but-doomed Memphis quartet whose melodic songs distilled teenagerdom to its blissful, bittersweet essence, was all but unknown until years after they broke up. Now, two decades or so after their rediscovery, Drew DeNicola tells their story with loving care in a doc that will be embraced by generations of music nerds who can’t imagine a world without them.
As satisfying as a rock doc can be without offering much in the way of in-their-prime live film, the documentary focuses exclusively on those who participated, somehow, in the band’s story — from art directors and promo reps for their 1972 debut LP to the musical descendants (notably R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey of the dB’s) who hunted members down after they disbanded and helped keep the flame alive. Notably absent is The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, whose song “Alex Chilton” introduced the 120 Minutes generation to the band.
Chilton, for those who don’t know, was just one half of a Lennon/McCartney team in the band. Partner Chris Bell, who left after the group’s first album, gets as much attention as anyone here: Though the doc ignores stories about fighting among bandmates, it offers a detailed and poignant account of Bell’s emotional troubles and his attempts to launch a solo career. (Bell is part of a tragic pantheon, stretching from Robert Johnson to Amy Winehouse, of musicians who died at 27.)
Chilton and Bell’s colleagues Andy Hummell and Jody Stephens are interviewed here (Chilton died in 2010, apparently without sitting for DeNicola), but just as evocative are Q&As with people like John Fry, who founded Big Star’s record label, Ardent. Though their debut earned rave reviews in major publications, Ardent’s distribution problems made it difficult to find in stores; their second album, thanks to more record-company woes, was similarly elusive.
One record label effort bore fruit, though: A long chunk of the film is devoted to rock critics who, in 1973, were flown to Memphis for a quasi-conference that culminated in a Big Star show. The band’s music may have been, as songwriter Robyn Hitchcock says, “a letter that got lost in the mail.” But on that night, if no other, they got to connect with exactly the right audience.
Production Company: September Gurls LLC
Director: Drew DeNicola
Producers: Olivia Mori, Danielle McCarthy
Executive producers: David Armillei, John Fry, Gill Holland
Director of photography: Drew DeNicola
Editors: Christopher Branca, Drew DeNicola
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 112 minutes
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