Creative tension, distribution problems and public apathy wrecked Big Star after only three albums.
Somehow, though, the mythos grew and for the first time, filmmakers Danielle McCarthy & Drew DeNicola have made a feature-length documentary on the band.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – which climaxes with an all-star performance of Third in New York – will be released next year. I caught up with Danielle last week as she reflected on the ‘curse of Big Star’ and the ‘beautiful Memphis light.’
Nick Wilson: Nothing Can Hurt Me is the first ever documentary on Big Star, what’s it been like making it?
Danielle McCarthy: It’s been an amazing ride so far! We were incredibly lucky to have the blessing of John Fry at Ardent Studios. He started Ardent when he was 16 and was the mastermind behind the recording of the first three Big Star records. Once he was onboard all the doors started opening and now he’s our Executive Producer! Also, getting to know Jody Stephens, Andy Hummel (who sadly passed away last year), Chris Bell’s family and Alex Chilton has been thrilling but it’s been tough to lose Alex and Andy. We really wanted to share the film with them.
How much of the financing was done by pledging?
We used Kickstarter to raise funds for our shoot in Memphis last year. All told we raised just over $14,000 in two weeks. And $6,000 of that we raised in just 24 hours! The rest of the financing has come from our own pockets and from investors. But we might do just one more Kickstarter campaign before the film is done.
Big Star has a sweeping rock n’ roll biography. Was it easy to condense into a feature length?
Yes, the Big Star story is huge and we’re still discovering more tangents as we edit. But the film will be much more than just a straightforward bio of the band. There’s just so many interesting people and music and stories around the band that we want to include. Memphis is a real character in the film as well as Ardent Studios where all three records were recorded. There will also be a section of the film about Alex’s time in New York City in the 70’s. We’re still editing so we’re in the thick of condensing the stories and it hasn’t been easy! Hopefully people will love all the stories we’ve collected.
The 1973 Overton Park concert photographs are great. Did you dig up any new footage of the band?
We have the only known footage of the original line-up. Chris and Andy filmed little vignettes that would have been used as a music video for ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Thirteen’. There’s also footage of the band jamming in Alex’s bedroom. It’s 16mm with no sound but it’s very cool. We also have some footage of Alex recording ‘Like Flies on Sherbert’ that’s very interesting. People always comment how shambolic that record sounds and you can tell in the video that they had fun recording it but you can also see there was a real method to that madness. Seeing Alex record those songs it’s clear that he had pretty much thought everything out and those little ‘mistakes’ or the messiness of that record was fairly produced. I don’t mean to say there weren’t improvised moments but Alex orchestrated the chaos perfectly to create a sound that feels so alive. It’s an incredible document. We have a few other hidden gems but if anyone out there has any footage of the band feel free to contact us: email@example.com.
Alex avoided the group’s cult reputation. Did you get any kind of a reaction from him during production?
Alex was very gracious to meet with us but he never really did interviews with the press anymore. That being said, he was incredibly kind to us and we had a great time talking and hanging out the few times we met. We didn’t take it personally. He just wasn’t interested in doing an interview – and believe me, we tried! But we do have access to a lengthy audio interview Bruce Eaton did with him for his 33 1/3 book on Radio City. He speaks at length about the recording of the Big Star records so I think people will love hearing those tapes.
Were there any interviews you didn’t get that you wish you had?
There are a few. We wish we had a chance to do a follow-up interview with Jim Dickinson before he died in 2009. We also wish we had interviewed Memphis musician Tommy Hoehn before he passed away last summer. He played with Chris Bell and recorded at Ardent and had some good stories of the 70’s so I heard. A lot of people around this film have passed away in the last two years so we keep losing people and it’s very upsetting.
Last year must have felt like you were in ‘the eye of the storm.’ (Chilton died on March 17th 2010. A tribute took place at SXSW three days later. Andy Hummel died on July 19th.) What was it like capturing those events?
The last year has been tremendously sad and difficult. We keep joking about the Big Star curse actually. It’s a long story but the tribute that happened after Alex died at SXSW was so raw and heartfelt. We almost didn’t go to Austin but Jody said he wanted us there so we had to document it. It was definitely one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Every performer just poured their heart out on stage. It was amazing. And of course the rest of the tribute shows that have followed have been terrific. It’s just so satisfying to see all these great artists playing tribute to the music. As super-fans we love it. Losing Andy and Alex has been difficult for us but of course it’s nothing in comparison to the loss for their family, friends and music in general. And there have been other members of the Big Star family that have passed away in the last two years. We lost Jim Dickinson who produced Third back in 2009. Carole Manning who designed the layout of the first two records and was close friends with the band died late last year. I mentioned Tommy Hoehn’s passing as well. It’s been rough but we hope the film will serve as a great tribute to the band and the extended Big Star family.
Jim Dickinson talked about the ‘geography’ of Memphis on the Third record. What did you discover about it?
The food! There’s just so much damn good food there. Last summer I gained 5 pounds just in one long weekend there. And it’s one of the most magical places on earth. The light in Memphis is beautiful. I’m not sure why or how to explain it – just look at a William Eggleston photo and notice the light. It’s gorgeous.