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Cult band shines in ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’

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Magnolia Pictures presents a film directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori. Running time: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for drug references and brief strong language). Screening at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Monday and Wednesday at the Music Box.

Updated: August 13, 2013 6:05AM

Across the street from Ardent Records in Memphis in the early ’70s, there was a supermarket called Big Star that provided the name for a band that didn’t live up to that prophetic billing until all hopes for success had died.

Big Star eventually became wildly successful in terms of critical accolades and musical influence, but not until it was disheartened and disbanded. It’s a fate that matched the rich mix of exuberance and melancholy in its music, and that’s reflected in this thoroughly detailed (though a bit long) doc that charts the band’s thwarted expectations.

And great expectations they were. After scoring a No. 1 hit with “The Letter” as a 16-year-old member of the Box Tops, singer-songwriter Alex Chilton left that group and returned to Memphis, looking for a new direction. He found it with singer-songwriter Chris Bell, an Ardent recording engineer who had been recording his songs in the studio with bass player Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens.

With its Beatles-like pop sensibility, its jangly yet gutsy guitar sound, Bell’s introspective lyrics and Chilton as front man, Stax Records handling distribution and lavish advance praise from the country’s biggest rock publications, Big Star seemed poised for instantaneous ascendancy. And then nothing happened.

Some blame distribution snafus, some blame the prevailing taste for heavier bands like Led Zeppelin, but Big Star’s “#1 Record” fizzled and died. So did its follow-ups, “Radio City,” which Bell abandoned mid-recording, and “Third/Sister Lovers,” led by Chilton with assistance from legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson.

Yet all three are included in the Rolling Stone compilation “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” All three are considered an early model for alternative rock and an inspiration for countless performers of the past few decades, including R.E.M., the Replacements, Matthew Sweet, the Flaming Lips and others, some of whom make appearances in this film.

“Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” will primarily be of interest to fans, of course, thanks to personal reminiscences by Stephens, Hummel (who died of cancer in 2010) and the band’s friends, family and musical associates. Missing are Bell (who died in a 1978 car accident) and Chilton (who declined to be interviewed before dying of a heart attack in 2010). The film also includes outtakes from recording sessions at Ardent that are likely to intrigue the faithful.

It’s also of general interest, though, for its portrait of two intensely driven artists: Bell, whose personal torment was exacerbated by the band’s commercial failure, and Chilton, who dismissed the band’s output before earning a devoted following with a determinedly eccentric solo career.

It’s a reminder that sometimes what seems like total failure can turn into something else entirely.

Bruce Ingram is a locally based free-lance writer.

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