When I was in a college band in the 80s, I played on one LP. We recorded it in Richmond, VA over a hurried couple of days and had the audacity to call it Hits, one of many mistakes associated with the disc. But the songs on the record were a marked departure from what the songwriter had written before. It soon became apparent (at least to me) he was under the influence of Big Star, if not melodically, in the bold choice of record name. That said, it was a long time ago, and I may be making this all up.
Big Star would influence much better bands (The Replacements and REM, to name two) and Big Star’s first two records – #1 Record and Radio City – are, as affirmed by the critics and other interviewees in this documentary, mind-blowingly great. Exhibit A–
The documentary, however, is merely good. While it does a creditable job of showing how the band, under the direction of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, came together and missed its shot at the golden ring, its coverage of the aftermath is alternatively listless and revealing. Particularly surprising is the time given to the peculiarities of Chilton and Bell after Big Star failed to make it. Disappointing is the meager attention given to the actual music, and make no mistake, those first two records are seminal. Instead, the film spends an inordinate amount of time on, in the words of one contemporary, Chilton’s “self-absorption, self-focus, [and his use of ] drugs and alcohol.” The documentary whizzes by Big Star’s 3rd record but offers a lengthy exploration of Chilton at his worst, his foray into punk and then a gruesome endeavor called Panther Burns.
As for Bell, the film does better with his story after Big Star missed its shot. In the words of one interviewee, Bell just “lost interest in bands period. He just wanted to hear his songs not translated.” He also became a born again Christian, told his brother “you should do drugs. It takes away your sexual urges”, and eventually found himself working at a local restaurant. But Chilton reconnected with Bell, and the result was an astonishing single, I Am the Cosmos, that harkened back to the sound of the first two records.
Much of the weaknesses of the documentary are inescapable. Bell and Chilton are dead (Bell died in a 1978 car accident, Chilton in 2010 of a heart attack) and they were extreme introverts while alive. In their stead, however, the film does a great justice to the broad music community in Memphis. And it wisely ends true to the form in the last 20 minutes, with a host of acts providing testaments and tributes to the band and its influence.