‘How Did I Not Know This Band?'
Documentary examines Memphis rock band that couldn't hit it big, but developed a cult following
Music fans, you know you do it. You "geek out" about some band you love, espousing its greatness and expressing disbelief that more people don't understand the music's beautiful complexity. Then, you decide to make a rock documentary detailing the band's troubled, emotional journey.
OK, maybe not that last part. Most of us don't have the resolve to make a film. Either that or we haven't lost our minds. "You have to be pretty crazy to make a film," said Danielle McCarthy, producer of the feature-length documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me." She's a long-time "massive fan" of the 1970s Memphis rock band Big Star, which never found fame in its time but has since amassed a huge cult following.
About six years ago, she was hanging around with a friend, "geeking out about Big Star," and musing that she couldn't believe a movie hadn't been made about the band. "My friend said, ‘Well, why don't you make this movie?' and I thought, ‘That's ridiculous,' " she recalled.
McCarthy, who works for Magnolia Pictures in New York City, went to Memphis and shot the first footage in 2007. About a year and a half later, she sought a creative partner to help, and a mutual friend set her up with Drew DeNicola, the film's writer and director. When they met, they found they literally share common ground: They're both Jacksonville natives who spent time in the '90s hanging out in Five Points and at the club Einstein A Go-Go in Jacksonville Beach.
As a Big Star fan, DeNicola was immediately interested in the project. Most of his film work has been in editing for advertising agencies, but he's been involved with documentaries on the side. "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me," which was officially released on July 3 after debuting last year at South By Southwest, is his first project to come to fruition.
Talking on a conference call that included McCarthy, he explains why he thinks Big Star, despite being a commercial failure, is worthy of being a film subject.
"They don't have the elements that make a rock documentary. They didn't have the fame. They didn't have the road stories, really," he said. "But with Big Star, it's like you do know them."
The theme song from "That '70s Show" is Cheap Trick's version of Big Star's song, "In the Street," and popular artists such as Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley also covered songs. "Literally, they are just one degree away from your music knowledge," DeNicola continued. "The feeling that everyone gets at the end of the film if they don't know the band is, ‘How did I not know this band?' "
McCarthy agreed. "The response we've gotten from a lot of people is, ‘Oh my God, why have I never heard this? I'm going to go out and get all their albums now.' "
Poor timing on the business side of making music, including a dismal lack of record distribution, crushed not only the band's chances at success, but also some of the members' dreams. In the 1970s, music critics from the biggest magazines, including Rolling Stone and Creem, hailed them as rock geniuses. But no one heard their records. As generations passed, bands such as The Replacements, REM and Teenage Fanclub name-dropped Big Star as an influence, and people took notice. In the '90s, Big Star experienced a revival, their records were reissued and the band reformed with new members.
Alex Chilton, Big Star's lead singer, is better known as The Box Tops' singer on the hit songs "The Letter" and "Cry Like a Baby." He declined to be a part of the film before dying in 2010, but met with the filmmakers for drinks. "He was cool. … He bought us a couple of rounds at the Ramada Inn," DeNicola recalled. "I don't think he really wanted to be pinned down in any way. He had been a rock 'n' roll outsider for a long time and had gotten used to that way of life."
Even without firsthand accounts from Chilton and Chris Bell, the band's primary founding member who died in 1978, the filmmakers manage to tastefully present an engaging and universal story of musical ingenuity, heartbreak and dreams that fall just painfully short of being realized. Interviews with drummer Jody Stephens, the only original band member surviving, plus recording engineers, music journalists, family members and friends, provide enough anecdotal history to satisfy fans while not overwhelming newcomers to the band with exhaustive details.
"[It's] more of a discovery instead of an exposé," DeNicola said of the film. "It's not a band bio. The focus, really, is just the music, where the music came from and the story behind it."