Reviewing Big Star’s 1974 album Radio City, the famed rock critic Robert Christgau asked if it was possible for rock music to be catchy and twisted at the same time. The question turned out to be prophetic. Despite their sun-kissed melodies and barbed guitar hooks, Big Star proved a little too esoteric for the pop mainstream of a dumbed-down decade. Instead, they settled for being one of the most beloved and influential American cult bands of all time.
Not to mention one of the unluckiest, in ways that went beyond the vagaries of marketing and rock-radio playlists. Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s lovingly assembled documentary inventories the near-misses and noble failures that comprised Big Star’s short career, as well as the tragedies that occurred after they’d stopped recording.
The group’s music was always fragile – not even Brian Wilson wrote a teenage-bedroom ballad as tender or tremulous as Thirteen or I’m in Love with a Girl – and so were its members. As the film shows, co-founders Alex Chilton (a one-time teen idol) and Chris Bell (a wannabe recording engineer) were both sensitive souls who fed off of each other’s creativity and clashed severely when their dreams of overnight stardom failed to coalesce.
For the uninitiated, Nothing Can Hurt Me will be a revelation as far as the music is concerned, while those familiar with the group will appreciate its combination of detail and empathy. Fans and novices alike might agree that the film is too long, however. Jam-packed with archival footage and interviews with family members, former associates and celebrity admirers, the movie is comprehensive to a fault.
And yet, for all of the clutter, Nothing Can Hurt Me is defined by a sense of absence. Neither Bell (who died in an automobile accident in 1978) nor Chilton (who declined to be interviewed before his death by a heart attack in 2010) appear to talk on the record. DeNicola and Mori find plenty of people to speak on their behalf, but in the end, it’s the songs that provide the most eloquent and lasting testimony.