On the Beat

Big Star movie, ‘Thank You, Friends,’ gets NC premiere

Brett Harris, left, Pat Sansone (from Wilco), Skylar Gudasz and Django Haskins in the Big Star documentary “Thank You, Friends.”
Brett Harris, left, Pat Sansone (from Wilco), Skylar Gudasz and Django Haskins in the Big Star documentary “Thank You, Friends.” Courtesy Concord Bicycle Music

In one of the afterword interviews toward the end of “Thank You, Friends,” Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington describes Chris Stamey as “the rare person who knows how to get things done.” That is understating the matter greatly.

A bonafide musical icon of North Carolina and beyond, Stamey has been getting things done for more than four decades – from forming the dB’s, to collaborations with the cream of the American underground and, in recent years, studio work with seemingly every notable act in this state. And for the past seven years, Stamey also has organized a series of live renditions of “Third/Sister Lovers,” the star-crossed landmark album by the power-pop godhead band Big Star.

Big Star’s “Third” is a touchstone to multiple generations of musicians, even as it remains obscure and largely unknown to the general public. Recorded in 1974 as the Memphis band was falling apart, it’s an album full of both beauty and pain – string-drenched arrangements as glorious as anything Brian Wilson ever dreamed up, melded with lyrics expressing the inner turmoil of frontman Alex Chilton.

Widely deemed unreleasable at the time, “Third” finally came out in 1978, by which time Big Star had dissolved and Chilton was in New York City playing in a band with Stamey. And even though Big Star never broke through, the band laid down a sonic blueprint for countless bands to follow, including R.E.M., the Replacements and Stamey’s own dB’s.

In 2010, the year Chilton died, Stamey decided to pay the music proper tribute with star-studded live performances of “Third” and other songs from the Big Star oeuvre. The first happened at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle, and Stamey has kept it going since then with revivals by a revolving cast of players. Directed by Benno Nelson and filmed last year in California, “Thank You, Friends” features members of R.E.M., Wilco, Semisonic, The Posies and Yo La Tengo, plus Kronos Quartet and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens (the group’s last surviving member).

The film also features numerous members drawn from Stamey’s North Carolina orbit, starting with his fellow Winston-Salem mate Mitch Easter and including younger guns like Django Haskins, Skylar Gudasz, Brett Harris and Jeff Crawford. It’s terrific to see them given equal standing alongside Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and other better-known performers.

“Thank You, Friends” is also interspersed with interview segments in which different performers recall their first experiences hearing Big Star. The band is treated as a talisman, and rightly so. Hearing these renditions of glorious, long-lost should’ve-been-hits like “September Gurls” and “Thirteen,” one is left wondering why Big Star didn’t get to be as big as the Beatles (or at least the Beau Brummels) in their day.

But the main takeaway is what a labor of love this seems to be for all concerned, not just Stamey. More than once during the film, Posies guitarist Jon Auer is shown patting his heart with his hand as he sings.

Pretty much all of “Thank You, Friends” is a big pat on the heart.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

What: North Carolina premiere, “Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live…And More,” screening followed by Q&A discussion and performance

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham

Cost: $16.63

Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org

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