Nothing Can Hurt Me, Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary about the ill-fated Memphis pop band Big Star, would’ve made a fine endpoint for this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, even without the movie’s local connections. As it was, however, the choice struck a nearly perfect note, thanks to its opening act.
Chapel Hill musician Chris Stamey—one of the film’s primary interview sources—gathered nine fellow musicians in the collective known as the Fellow Travellers to perform 10 Big Star songs on the Carolina Theatre stage before the film screened. It was an abbreviated version of the Big Star tribute project that Stamey has brought to stages in New York, Austin, London and Barcelona over the past couple of years; footage from those shows was included in the film.
This set was looser than those more formal performances, but it was no less valuable for bringing to life the music of the film. A rotating cast of singers—Brett Harris, Matt McMichaels, Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz and Stamey himself—took lead-vocal turns in reaching for the high notes of the late Big Star leaders Chris Bell (who was killed in a car crash in 1978 at age 27) and Alex Chilton (who died of a heart attack three years ago at age 59), accompanied by acoustic guitars, upright bass, flute and a four-piece string section.
The performances were a bit uneven—fitting, perhaps, given Big Star’s reputation for teetering on the brink between beauty and damage. Still, the high points were transcendent: Harris’ soaring vocal set the bar high on the opening “You And Your Sister,” a Bell song first issued by Stamey in 1978 as the B-side of a single on his tiny independent label Car Records. Gudasz reached even deeper into Big Star’s soul with her beautifully fragile delivery of Chilton’s classic “Thirteen.” (For a general idea, check out this rendition from last May in London, though Sunday night’s version was even more poignant.) And McMichaels’ rousing lead on “September Gurls,” with Superchunk’s Jon Wurster joining the ensemble on tambourine, proved a perfect closer.