Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story

At one point in this film the record producer Jim Dickerson makes an astute observation which I'll paraphrase and expand before going any further. The task of the would be successful pop star is to put in the time and toil to make the reality match the fantasy. The difference between this being eyes-on-the-prize and desperate naivete is usually the willingness to put the grinding hours in but what if you do a lot of that and still get nowhere? What if your effort is completely de-carpeted by the machinery you are meant to rely on? What if that isn't poor workers blaming tools but the people at the tool factory taking a massive sickie?

Big Star's story is one of pop music history's disturbances, kicking at the door of our assumptions that all the really good people get through. They were made up of good players and writers (one of whom had already been a teenage pop star) who put together a tightly constructed album, richly textured and confident, who were feted by the music press, who had a record deal in one of America's major music towns, who even looked like rock stars, and they failed at everything they tried.

Admitting that the taint of failure matters exposes the shallowness of our relationship with pop music. So that means that it shouldn't matter, doesn't it? But it does. A documentary about Nick Drake (there is a good one, btw) might sadden and frustrate us at Drake's incapacity to meet the duties of the aspirant but a case of a foursome with high powered tunes that should have been all over the radio and weren't gives us a creepy crawly feeling.

The examination this film makes of the failure of the record industry machine to support and promote (and distribute) Big Star is solid and heart rending but its coverage of the internal problems is less penetrating. Chris Bell's personal difficulties after his departure are all but described as the mental stress of a Rocky Erickson or Syd Barrett which might well have been there all the time. No one talks about it to any depth here. Why was Alex Chilton so self-murderingly contrary in his subsequent career. The sole point of success he was to enjoy was heading the revived Big Star. Otherwise his story is one of such frustrating perversity that its witnesses must soon retract their interests at what might well be a decades long tantrum (Chris Stamey says he would rather see Chilton do another turn of Volare than an Arcade Fire set: not me) and find better things for their attention.

Was the failure of Big Star to blame for this? Was it youth alone that could fight to organise them to banding and writing and playing and bringing out these records before impatience and their own demons abandoned the effort? Ex-Beatles can afford to be disappointing and even embarrassing after creative and popular success on their planetary scale. There were few ex-Beatles to begin with and now there are fewer.

The film avoids a lot of the pitfalls of rockumentaries in that it keeps the platitudes low and the relevant content high. There is some wonderful footage of the band in the studio and images of publicity photos contemporary recording equipment over audio-only interviews. The origins section is enriched by extension to figures like producer John Fry whose youth and drive were obviously great assets to the band's creative progress. The story of the fall down the other side of the mountain is also pithy and well-played but then we run into problems.

After the final original album makes its strained appearence and the band splits the film begins deflating. Chris Bell's story is taut, heartrending and a useful extension of the lesson of Big Star's failure. Alex Chilton's solo career is propped up in the film as it was in life by latecoming fans and celebrants like Chris Stamey and Mike Mills. Chilton shows us nothing but burnout but boy do we get to see a lot of it. Why, for example, does his involvement with the excerable Panther Burns get so much screen time? He was with them for all of five minutes but we get what feels like fifteen telling us.

Panther Burns are what happens at a school party when the band takes a break and five of their tanked and talentless friends strap on the guitars and get behind the drums to show how it's really done except that Panther Burns emerged from the remorse of the next day's hangover to try and make a career of it. I'm punk generation and can put up with a lot of quirk and anti rock but I have to cry bullshit on that one. The film suggests that they were some wild, outrageous renegades but can only produce the kind of whacky tameness I can imagine from the staff Christmas party at the Wiggles business office. Panther Burns perp in chief, Tav Falco, gets a few needless and unwelcome minutes on screen smugging through his plastic face about how the 'Burns are still ahead of their time. If that's true then we are in for an apocalypse of unimaginable blandness. Please remove this material and add what you can to it to make a documentary entirely about the Panther Burns so I don't have to see it.

Apart from this highlight the slow descent to the end credits is oiled by a lot of platitudes from indy rockers whose enthusiasm creates the room's elephant. Big Star emerged in the early 70s and went through to the mid. Apart from some beautifully eerie moments in the last album their sound was resolutely British late 60s. So what, you say? So what, in the era of Baby Ima Want You and Horse With No Name? Well think about it: around them were Bowie's feverish swift reinventions, Roxy Music's distillation of the prog rock bloat, Led Zeppelin's triumph over their metal-blues beginnings and even the Stones moving through the big four albums while Big Star are still partying like it's 1969.

While their attention to detail is not slavish it's really no stretch to think of them as proto-revivalists and less of one to imagine that the most vocal and active supporters of any who dug them up from the late 70s on were also revivalists: Chris Stamey (whose interviews are welcome) created, with the dBs some of the early 80s most sublime late 60s sounds; Mike Mills along with REM took the revivalism further by making it less slavish; see also Robin Hitchcock and the list goes on. Big Star legitimised these bands as the latter poignantly rose (at least in REM's case) to the celestia of stadium glory. And at the inevitable indy celebrities all star tribute concert we get to see a fair whack of the roll call. But by that time the film's point has long blunted.

The paradigm shift we have been seeing in music distribution since the online realm allowed it seems to be preventing the problems Big Star faced from the business side of the deal. Online do-it-yourself retail makes the machine work better with less parts but also means that an exponentially larger and ever expanding user base is clicking away at the machine itself and it has become ever harder to get noticed. This means that the problem of reconciling the dream with the reality has only got harder and the naivete that talent alone will break through is more of a naivete than it was and the disappointment at its failure potentially more crushing. Would Big Star work better now? Given that they were only doing what later bands have done wouldn't they be risking the same obscurity? Indy bands that stay indy tend now to manage that and, failing at the greater world just shrink the world until they seem big in it. Then with the revivalism of the stadium lard of previous generations still healthy (I've known current indy bands to cite Fleetwood Mac and ELO as influences) maybe they would stand a much better chance.

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