The documentary "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" is still "an unofficial work in progress" according to director Drew Denicola. But that's not stopping he and his partners from rolling it out for a sneak peak at this week's South By Southwest movie and music conferences.
"We really weren't ready for South By Southwest," Denicola tells Billboard.com with a laugh. "We had a two and a half hour cut and we made that an hour and a half. But (SXSW) was really gracious and said they wanted to just see where we were at and have this concert and show. We just want to show what we've been doing and get some audience response to that and continue working."
The Big Star film will be shown on March 15 at Austin's Paramount Theatre, followed by a performance of Big Star's "Third" album with drummer Jody Stephens, the dBs Chris Stamey, former R.E.M. members Mike Mills and Peter Buck, and others. "I'm thrilled we get to do this," says Stephens. "It's not often you get somebody who spends three or four years documenting something you've done over a period of time. It'll be an amazing visual scrapbook and...tell a pretty basic story of all of us getting together and just creating this music that we had a fascination with and the kind of remarkable time we had doing that."
The idea for "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" was conceived in 2007 and picked up steam when Denicola -- who works at VICE/VBS.tv in New York and helms the ongoing "Natural Soul Brother: The Original Black DJs" project -- was brought on board in 2009, first as an editor then as a director. Due to frontman Alex Chilton's reticence to participate, Denicola says he began thinking about a film that "could be more about the resurgence in interest in the band and what it's like to have a band that's appreciated posthumously rather than in their time. So that was the angle."
Things changed drastically in 2010, however, when Chilton passed away just before that year's South By Southwest. Denicola was planning to film a scheduled Big Star show there as well as panel discussion dedicated to the band, and though he worried that "people might think we were cashing in on Alex's death," he still came to Austin and pushed forward with the movie.
"After that happened, there was just so much talk about the story of Big Star again," Denicola notes. "The resurgence just happened in waves. So we made a screener of the stuff we'd done (at SXSW) and posted it on Kickstarter and got more than twice the amount of money we were asking for." Denicola continued shooting in Big Star's home base of Memphis during the summers of 2010 and 2011, and so far he's amassed an estimated 80-100 hours of footage that includes testimonials from admires such as Mills, Michael Stipe, Matthew Sweet, the Lemonheads' Evan Dando, John Doe, the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood and others. He's hoping to soon get Poison Ivy Rorschach from the Cramps, who Chilton worked with on a couple of singles in 1977, as well as Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.
Chilton's estate, however, has maintained "complete distance" from the project, according to Denicola.
"I think it's ultimately a story of redemption, and there is tragedy in that," Denicola says of the film. "Big Star traded commercial success in their time for a lasting legacy; it's almost as if they purposefully did that. That's what we want to convey with this. I'm into storytelling; it's not journalism." Stephens adds that "the cool thing about it is the life and times of (Big Star) are really reflected in the three albums we released in the 70s. I'm grateful for how the band has touched people over the years and certainly grateful for getting the e-mails and hearing from all the people who come into the group now. With the exposure over the years the numbers have grown. It's an ever-renewing kind of audience. I don't know of anything quite like it, so if that's called redemption, that's awesome."
As for Big Star's present, Stephens says that as far as he's concerned the group -- which he and Chilton reactivated in 1993 with the Posies' Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow -- is no longer an active concern. "I wouldn't feel comfortable playing a date as Big Star now," he says. But he does want the music to live and is amenable to special shows like the periodic Stamey-led recreations of "Third" or the European dates he, Auer and Stringfellow played with Dutch musician JB Meyers, doing Big Star's songs.
"I really enjoy playing these songs, so it's just hard to stop," Stephens says. "It's a good time. It's wonderful being part of a band with Jon and Ken, and it was great doing those dates with JB. So I feel perfectly comfortable moving forward and playing the music of Big Star, but not AS Big Star."
- SXSW