Big Bands: Mistaken for Strangers, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FILM, Film Festivals, Music
At the New Zealand International Film Festival, The National and Big Star on film.

Mistaken for Strangers sells itself as a film about The National on tour, but ostensibly it’s a film about the making of a film about The National on tour—handheld cameras, poor lighting, filmmaker selfie monologues and all.

However, in this post-I’m Still Here/Catfish world, it doesn’t take a huge cynic to think that the film’s documentary credential are bogus and that it’s as well planned as any fiction film—storyline, script etc.

The story goes that wannabe filmmaker Tom Berninger is invited by older brother Matt, lead singer of The National, to work as a roadie on their upcoming tour. Tom decides that he will take the opportunity to make a film about The National. Strangely, though, Tom is often the centre of attention. Rather than filmmaker, he is film subject.

The first half covers the usual stuff—shots of foreign cities, performances, backstage, buses, fans, interviews with the band—albeit with a certain knowingness. It seemed to me that all the characters, whether main player (the band) or bit part (band manager), were more or less playing caricatures of themselves—some more convincingly than others.

The second half of the film is where the ‘film about the making of a film about The National on tour’ kicks in. Tom is kicked off tour for being useless and then mooches about, with the help of various people, trying to get the film finished. At one point, someone recommends that Tom just “Fake it ‘til you make it”—bluntly telling the audience what they already know (in that grand tradition of crappy American police procedurals).

Musically, The National are a bit dark. Having a lead singer with such a glorious baritone doesn’t help, and I can’t help but think that part of the purpose of the film is to show/suggest that they aren’t as serious and gloomy as their music intimates, and that they are a fun bunch of guys who can have a laugh at themselves.

I can imagine that hardcore fans of the band might be upset about it, but it’s a clever, smart-arsey film, one that’s hugely entertaining and finishes on an unexpectedly moving note.

A much straighter music doco is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a band responsible for some of the most beautiful pop music ever made and whose influence has markedly out-stripped their commercial success.

I first started listening to Big Star (and Chris Bell) in the early ’90s when practically every band I liked at the time mentioned their love of Big Star: R.E.M., Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, The Chills, and so on. But beyond reading CD sleeve notes and the odd article, their history was something I hadn’t explored. I had high hopes for the film and wasn’t disappointed.

It’s an orthodox chronological telling—formation, recordings, breakups, deaths, reunion, deaths—with contemporary and historical interviews with most of the main players. (The band’s original leads, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, died in 1978 and 2010 respectively).

There’s no doubt that this is a story that deserved telling: one of ups and downs, success and failures, wonderful music, and untimely deaths. Like the Velvet Underground and Nick Drake, Big Star are bigger today than when they were first together 30 years ago, and this film will hopefully both broaden their audience and educate/entertain old fans.

The film acts as a brief history lesson of the Memphis scene, especially in the late ’60s and early ’70s, giving us the context in which they developed. Even though I knew there was a relationship, I was unaware that photographer William was such a focal point of the Memphis scene then.

There are moments of humour, and moments of great sadness (Bell’s brother saying “I’d rather still have him here than have his music.”), but for me it was full of information, some unknown, some forgotten, and of course the music, much of which had the affect of hearing it for the first time.

There are extensive sound bites from numerous critics and fewer one from musicians influenced by them—Norman Blake, Ira Kaplan, Mike Mills—but refreshingly none of the ‘big names’ I expected, such as Evan Dando, Peter Buck, and Bobbie Gillespie. It must surely also be the first documentary about an American band that doesn’t have David Fricke in his usual role as ubiquitous talking head—though he does pop up as a smiling face in a photo.

Midway through the film, one of the old music critics says, “we didn’t want them to become huge, we wanted them to remain a small band that everyone listened to.” This film may well help with that wish. After being somewhat disappointed with other biographical docos (Gram Parsons, Merle Haggard, Shihad, for instance), I can’t recommend Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me enough.

Mistaken for Strangers’ and ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’ screen at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.