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SXSW preview: Big Star documentary

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

The idea is holy writ among rock critics: Big Star should have been huge.

Instead, Big Star — the Memphis, Tenn., power pop band best known as the group with which Alex Chilton made amazing music between his time in the Box Tops and his bizarre solo career — is perhaps the ultimate 1970s cult rock band, beloved by a hard-core fan base and all but unknown outside it.

Chilton died in 2010, days before a Big Star reunion show at South by Southwest.

The wonderful documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," premiering at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival, lays out the band's genius, stresses and surreal story, which goes something like this:

When the Box Tops folded in 1970, Chilton joined with genuinely brilliant songwriter/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens to form Big Star. Their label, Ardent Records, a Stax Record rock imprint, was convinced that they would be huge.

"Nothing Can Hurt Me" includes amazing footage of Big Star putting together its 1972 debut album, "#1 Record," glorious shots by legendary photographer William Eggleston, footage of the 2010 tribute show at SXSW after Chilton's death and archival music from Ardent Studios.

Shoddy distribution through Columbia Records (which just wanted Stax's soul output) meant "#1 Record" and the 1974 follow-up "Radio City" were all but ignored, despite critical praise.

Those records aged into cult classics, worshipped as precision-tooled power-pop perfection by bands from the Replacements (who wrote the song "Alex Chilton" about their hero), to R.E.M. to Cheap Trick (who turned Big Star's "Out in the Street" into the theme song for "That '70s Show").

The final Big Star album, "Third," (aka "Sister Lovers" on some pressings) is essentially a Chilton solo album with Stephens on it.

Chris Bell, who was as important to "#1 Record" as Chilton, contributed far less to "Radio City"; his lone solo album, "I Am the Cosmos," is a stunner. Bell died in a one-car accident in 1978; he was 27.

It's this third album that will be performed by an all-star lineup, including Stephens, Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star), Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star), Chris Stamey (The dB's), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), and Mitch Easter (Let's Active) along with some special guests, including the Tosca String Quartet, Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, M Ward, Lucero and the Dunwells. The show will be at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, directly following the movie's premiere.

"Chris leaves the band and we made ‘Radio City,' which had more of an edge," Stephens said. "The name came from how much we thought radio would like the album: ‘Man, this thing is radio city!' Or so we thought. It could be we were misleading ourselves as it didn't sound like anything like bands on the radio at the time.

"But then everything falls apart with the third."

As a result, Big Star never played much of "Third" in front of people. The band was in pieces by then.

"It really is a remarkable experience for me, to play the third album live," Stephens said. "It's real magic having that string section on stage and with all the musicians participating, it becomes this wonderful community of players and audience."

Big Star reunited in 1993 around a core of Chilton, Stephens and new recruits Auer and Stringfellow.

A dark, strange album, "Third" has a life almost outside Big Star. Largely a collaboration between an increasingly unhappy Chilton and the late Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, its fan base is a cult within the Chilton cult.

Stephens said he is surprised by some of the songs that have become favorites.

"In my wildest dreams I never would have thought anyone would have covered that ‘Kangaroo,' " Stephens said.

"Kangaroo" is a stunner but mighty obtuse, a cloud of feedback, acoustic guitar, almost random percussion, Mellotron strings and Chilton's heartbroken voice.

"But Jeff Buckley, Beck, This Mortal Coil all played it. I saw Jeff do it once, which was extraordinary."

Stephens doesn't sound bitter at all, which is refreshing. In fact, he thinks Big Star gets a bit of a weird rap.

"I gotta admit using the word ‘tragic' in association with Big Star is a little heavy," Stephens said. "I never thought of myself of being part of a tragedy, even during the third album. I always felt very lucky. I don't think we felt like victims."

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926.

‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me'