After seeing the recent documentary A Band Called Death about an African-American punk rock group in 1974 that was long forgotten (only to receive a breath of recognition after the death of one of the band members), it was a further sign of the ample creativity the early 1970s music scene had emerged but was neglected. I would like to think watching the film helped to prepare me for "Nothing Can Hurt Me," which helps to document the story of another band from that era, specifically the Memphis band Big Star.
The film is written and directed by Drew DeNicola, and features interviews with a variety of subjects. For those unfamiliar with Big Star, it was comprised of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel. Chilton had experienced success previously with The Box Tops, singing a hit called "The Letter," but with Big Star, the group challenged each other creatively and these challenges showed in their work. Blending some elements of rock and pop with unexpected and pleasant vocal harmonizing, the music was met to rave critical reviews of their first album in 1971 (titled "#1 Album"), but was also met with disappointing sales and lack of marketing from their record label. Bell took the latter as a deep personal insult and decided to leave the group while Chilton, Stephens and Hummel continued, releasing "Radio City" in 1974 and "Third/Sister Lovers" in 1978 (though it should be noted the latter was recorded in 1974 and finished in 1978, after the trio broke up). Bell died in a one-car crash soon after the album was recorded, after several attempts to find record label acceptance on a solo act.
While the band was gone, their work was received and adored by those who eventually founded (or were significant parts of) their own acts. Mike Mills of REM and Paul Westerberg of The Replacements were among those who continued to champion Chilton and the group in general, and eventually in 1993 the band (minus Hummel) reunited, even releasing some live and compilation albums to go with a studio album in 2005. The band effectively ceased to be in 2010 with the deaths of Chilton and Hummel four months apart but the legacy remains.
An underappreciated part of Nothing Can Hurt Me is how DeNicola imparts information about the band and of the music scene in Memphis in general that many may not know about. Personally I had known about the Stax label and the artists who came from it and had some idea of Stax' smaller arm Ardent Studios. But I had no idea that its founder John Fry was so young when he founded the studio and DeNicola helps show the viewer the impact he had on the scene and on the band, and Bell's work to find success on his own is given time also. It is the scenes focused on Bell that for me are the most poignant. I do not know if it was DeNicola's intent, but it seems as if Bell put a lot of his heart into the band, and when he did not get the reception he might have been expecting, he was left hurt by it, even attempting suicide at one point (though to be fair it is not mentioned if the lack of success is the reason for the attempt). There is a subtle discussion that seems to go on through the film about who is more emblematic of Big Star's heart, Bell or Chilton, and it is left for the viewer to perhaps make the determination.
The film is less about attempting to draw conclusions, or pass judgment. It is clear almost from the outset that it is almost an ode to the band and the work that came from it. Where A Band Called Death appears to be more about the rediscovery of a band, for me Nothing Can Hurt Me is about why Big Star was kept in so many hearts and how strong the musicians within the group were artistically. Being unfamiliar to both, I wound up having the same feelings about becoming aware of the music from both bands: happiness, joy and hoping that there are similar stories out there waiting to be told.
Nothing Can Hurt Me is given an AVC-encoded transfer and in its 1.78:1 widescreen glory, the results are solid. The film juggles interviews that are shot a couple of years ago (Hummel participated in the film before his death, along with others such as Jim Dickinson, who produced the "Third" album) and more modern stuff, and various old video like a Chilton appearance on a Memphis morning talk show as part of the group Panther Burns. All of which look as good as they are going to and the interview subjects look good without an abundance of image detail or DNR. It is solid viewing for the Magnolia Home Entertainment group.
DTS-HD Master Audio accompanies the film and sounds as good as can be expected. Along with the ample use of the music, some of the between takes banter is also included and sounds consistent, to go along with all of the interview tape. The feature includes little to no instances of channel panning, directional effects or low end fidelity, but the film sounds clear throughout and the biggest star of the film, the music, is given as much justice as possible. It is a pleasant disc to listen to and the soundstage is broad for the documentary.
While there are some decent extras on the disc, I would have liked a commentary from DeNicola to see why he took this on and how some of the interview subjects came together for the film. Three deleted scenes (10:32) are somewhat forgettable, though Chris Bell (18:33) and Alex Chilton (24:10) are similar segments that provide more detail on each of the members, with (in Bell's case) family members recounting how he was as a kid growing up. The post-Big Star projects of each are remembered and some anecdotes of how each was in the studio are shared, and how each pushed on after leaving the band. Both are much better than the deleted scenes and worth checking out. "Big Star in the Studio" (15:14) is also interesting, as Fry recounts the band in studio and his work with them and shares his own stories about them. The film's trailer (2:22) rounds things out.
Much like A Band Called Death, with the release of Nothing Can Hurt Me will inspire even the apathetic viewer to download some of Big Star's music catalog to gain more insight and inspiration on their work, which is the likely desired effect. But the mystery surrounding some of Big Star's gap in history is given its proper context and attention here, and ultimately the viewer gets a newfound respect of and appreciation for their work. Definitely worth viewing for fans of the group and for those that are looking for a good documentary in their lives.