November 20, 2013 -- This documentary about the influential Memphis band Big Star has certain similarities to last year's award-winning film, “Searching for Sugarman,” and other films like “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” It is about influential musicians, some of whom never got the credit and acclaim they should have while they were alive.
The film talks about how the band was formed and how it got almost unlimited access to a top-notch Memphis recording studio. The most famous member of the band was William Alexander "Alex" Chilton who had earlier become famous as a teenager as the lead singer of the Box Tops with hits like “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby.” Another influential musician in the band was Christopher "Chris" Bell. Other band members were Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel.
Big Star was formed in Memphis in 1971. Some of the band members had virtually unlimited access to a local recording studio, Ardent, founded by John Fry, who is an executive producer and music supervisor of this film. The band became adept at recording and mixing their own songs. Their first album, “#1 Record” got glowing reviews from Rolling Stone and other music magazines, but it wasn't a hit album. The music, called “power pop” by some, bucked the major trends in music at the time. Some of the songs on the record were melancholy.
Even though the album was not commercially successful, Big Star picked up a cult following among music lovers who seek out alternative and underground music. Big Star further cemented its following during a 1973 music writer's convention in Memphis organized by John King of Ardent. A performance by Big Star at the convention exposed many of the country's top music writers to the power of Big Star's music. One of the music writers in that crowd was Cameron Crowe, who went on to direct a movie about being a young music writer, “Almost Famous.”
One music writer, Pete Tomlinson, says in the film the first time he heard Big Star it was “a life changing experience.” He had received a review copy of “#1 Record” in the mail. Music writers were very influential in reviving interest in Big Star after the band split up.
According to the film, the commercial failure of the first Big Star album hit Chris Bell hard. He had poured his heart and soul into that album and was hoping it would be a big success. Bell was a troubled soul. John Fry of Ardent tells a heartrending story of how Bell, depressed and possibly affected by drugs, came to the studio and started erasing the original studio multi-track tape recordings of Big Star's first album.
The band started to fracture after that first album, in part due to Bell's increasing emotional instability. Bell quit the band, then rejoined it, then quit again, but the remaining members of the band managed to record two more albums, “Radio City” and “Third/Sister Lovers” in 1974. Nearly 20 years later, when the popularity of Big Star revived, Alex Chilton reformed the band with new members and went touring. According to people interviewed in the film, this was a surprising development because up until that time Chilton had distanced himself from Big Star following the breakup of the band in the 1970s.
The film follows the solo careers of Bell and Chilton after the breakup of Big Star. Bell is a tragic figure with self-destructive habits and very ill at ease in his own skin. He pursued a personal vision of his own musical style, while hoping for commercial success. Fame came too late for him to enjoy it. He died in an auto accident at the age of 27 in 1978. He was one of many musicians, including Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, to die at the age of 27.
Alex Chilton died in 2010, but he lived to see the revival of interest in Big Star, and some measure of vindication for a more widespread recognition of the quality of the music he created. Andy Hummel also died in 2010. The last surviving member, and he looks remarkably healthy and well-preserved in the film, is the drummer, Jody Stephens, 61. It is unfortunate that this film could not have been made a few years ago when two more of the band members were still alive. Those missing voices are part of the reason this film has some of the sadness it has.
The film indicates that part of the reason Big Star was not a hit band was just plain bad luck. One of the band's albums ended up not being distributed because of a record company going out of business at just the wrong time. It also seems that the Big Star sound was not quite in tune with the music of the early 1970s, which was dominated by other kinds of music, including funk and psychedelic. Big Star marched to its own sound.
As you would expect, there is a lot of music on the film's soundtrack, all of it from Big Star and other recordings by Chilton and Bell. A number of musicians and writers appear in the film to sing the praises of Big Star, Chilton and Bell. I thought the film worked best when it was concentrating on Big Star, but wandered a bit when it drifted on to what happened to band members after the breakup of the band. Like some of Big Stars songs, the film has a melancholy feel to it.
I'd never heard any Big Star music before seeing this movie. I'd never heard of the band. After watching this film and listening to the music, it did not convert me into a being a fan of the band or the music they made, but at least now I know enough to buy one of their records if I spotted one in a flea market. I could sell it on ebay and make some money. This film rates a C+.
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