Sunday, September 8, 2013

Beatles and Big Star: Roc docs galore...

On the first Beatles' Christmas disc - those weirdly humorous pieces recorded and given to members of their fan club -  the boys stop their joking and give thanks to various people. One of them is a mysterious woman named Freda. At the mention of her name, we hear various Beatle voices yelling, "Good ol' Freda!"
This object of their affection was none other than Freda Kelly, a 17-year-old Liverpool girl hired by Beatle manager Brian Epstein to be the group's fan club secretary. Largely anonymous for many years, a new documentary by Ryan White reveals Freda Kelly to have been the group's mother hen, sister figure, and permanent liaison between the Fab Four and their horde of screaming female fans. "I was a fan," Kelly says in the film, "just like the girls who wrote to them, so I understood how they felt."
In Good Ol' Freda,  we get to listen to Kelly reminisce a bit about her 10-year-stint with The Beatles. Her stories are quaint, and even though she doesn't unload any major bombshells, she has an earthy, engaging personality. It's a fun film to watch. There's a good story about John Lennon pretending to fire her after she was late to an event (Good ol' Freda was in the dressing next door, partying with The Moody Blues) and it's touching to hear how Kelly, who had lost her mother at a very young age, developed a strong friendship with Ringo's mother.  It's also touching to learn that the band demanded she remain their secretary, even when they moved their operation to London and Kelly's dad refused to let her go.
Mostly, though, we watch this kindhearted woman with a bit of awe, the same way we look at lottery winners. "It's as if I was picked up and taken on this incredible trip, and then dropped off 10 years later," she says. Her life since the Beatles has been the sort of life she probably would've had if she'd never met a Beatle at all. She's been a regular English woman, raising a family and working a day job. But she still gets teary eyed when reading the final issue of the fan club newsletter, signing off and thanking all of the "Beatle people."
There's also a sense that Kelly isn't telling all she knows. To her credit, she's still minding the store, so to speak, and guarding the secrets, of which there must be many. At one point White intrudes on the narrative to ask Kelly if she ever dated any of the lads. She never takes the bait. Good for her. 

As Ringo once said in another program, the only people who knew what it was like in those days were the people who were there. And Freda Kelly was there. A glimpse of her autograph book, where Paul McCartney signs "To the love of my life," and Lennon writes, "To Freda, whom I love with all my heart and soul," says more than any shabby gossip she might have shared.

Big Star’s  reputation? They’re the best band that you’ve never heard of. They were a  favorite of 1970s rock critics, and their worked influenced performers as diverse as R.E.M. and Elliot Smith. Even so, they were hardly noticed during a brief run, not even in their hometown of Memphis.

The new documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me a well-intentioned, reverent tribute by directors Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori – aims for a style as delicate as the band’s sound. The people that the filmmakers interview are intelligent, soft-spoken, and genuinely upset that Big Star couldn’t find mass appeal, even though it will seem obvious to viewers why the band didn’t catch on. Big Star’s leaders, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, weren’t cut out to play 1970s rock gods.  One shunned the spotlight and the other was prone to depression. They weren’t exactly Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey.
For the uninitiated, Big Star’s songs were beautiful and elegiac, but Stax Records–the band’s parent label–didn’t know what to do with them and preferred spending money on successful acts.  By 1974, the band was no more. During the 1990s, as new bands paid homage to Big Star’s influence, Chilton reformed the group with a different lineup (Bell died in 1978). Chilton played with the revamped Big Star until his own death at age 60 in 2010. Bassist Andy Hummel also died in 2010.

What would Chilton think of this movie? He often accused people of overrating Big Star, and he’d probably be dismissive of the fawning critics. He recalled the group’s recordings the way some people look at  themselves in old photographs, blanching slightly at the memory. Still, a person can burn old photographs; Chilton could never completely burn the memory of his old band.
The movie begins with promise. We’re in Memphis in the 1960s, where new bands pop up every week, and every schoolyard guitar player is trying to figure out how Jeff Beck gets his sound. Chilton is a local legend, having scored pop chart hits with the Box Tops at age 16.  Meanwhile, Bell is an aspiring songwriter, fast-food worker, and engineer at Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Bell and Chilton team up and record an album that catches rock critics by surprise. It is the age of Pink Floyd, Genesis, and overwrought theatrics. Critics are looking for something less bombastic. Big Star was what they’d been waiting for.

How to describe them? The best I can do is to say they are The Beatles or The Byrds without the fun. Even when they try to rock, Big Star sounds like sleepy poets trying to recount a dream while still in an early morning haze. Even the band’s declaration that “Rock and roll is here to stay” in the song “Thirteen”–their paean to adolescent yearning–sounds like a lament. They could make anything sound bleak.
No rock documentary is complete without its tragic figure, and in Big Star’s case it’s Bell.  At one point, feeling overshadowed by Chilton, he tried to destroy their debut album’s master tapes, and attempted to overdose on pills. By the time Chilton turned Big Star into a backing band for his own ideas, Bell was wandering through Europe hoping to record a solo project. A posthumous album of Bell’s was released nearly two decades later called I Am The Cosmos. The title cut was about how being connected to the universe isn’t quite enough. The repeated refrain “I’d really like to see you again” is haunting. It’s a great song, and it makes one wonder if Bell had actually been the driving force behind Big Star since Chilton’s solo efforts were far rougher and less melodic.

Bell died in a car accident at age 27 –the age when tragic rockers are supposed to die. He remains a mystery to this day. The film mentions his interest in Jesus, but skirts the fact that he used drugs to kill his sexual urges. It’s hinted that he experimented sexually, but no relationships are mentioned. Even his connection to Chilton remains largely unexplored. Were they merely songwriting partners? Friends? The film provides no clear answers.
The reliance on veteran critics from Creem and Rolling Stone to vouch for the band’s greatness nearly brings the film into This Is Spinal Tap territory, which probably isn’t what the filmmakers intended. With no sense of irony, the critics speak of themselves as outlaws and non-conformists – maybe imagining themselves as Hunter S. Thompson types – but in old clips they look like nerdy college dropouts trying to score free drinks. Now they’re a bunch of fat guys listening to records in basements. It’s hard to take them seriously, especially since had Big Star had been a success they would’ve dumped them in favor of another unknown band. The public knew 40 years ago that music critics were a finicky lot. That’s probably why no one listened to them regarding Big Star.
The film’s best moments involve Chilton. We see him as a talented and mercurial person, always turning from commercialism toward the darker corners of pop. Within a few years of Big Star’s end, he was playing in perverse “anti-art” punk groups. Chilton’s involvement with punk music lead to his producing The Cramps’ first album, Songs The Lord Taught Us. The scene where The Cramps play in a little studio, however, brings to light  another of the film’s shortcomings. The Cramps are alive, raw, and wild. Seeing the Cramps perform is much better than listening to critics praise them.  Had there been  footage of Big Star playing a song to completion, we’d have a greater understanding of what the fuss was about.

Then again, the lack of footage helps keep Big Star in the shadows. Maybe that’s what everybody really wants.

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