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Alex Chilton: Thanks For Being So Nice

a film by David Julian Leonard

Because I knew Alex Chilton for thirty years - this film is more personal than my other documentary projects about music and musicians.

Alex was easy for a kid like me to meet around the time I dropped out of high school in Memphis. I'd see him perform in small rooms as a sideman with Tav Falco's Pantherburns, a ragged and raging “art damage” punk/rockabilly/blues/tango ensemble. It was a far cry from his years as a pop star in The Box Tops just a decade earlier but for us it was exhilarating. Underage delinquents like me could still get served in bars without an ID and Alex was a regular; he liked to hang with the kids in his neighborhood.

In 1982, Alex quit drinking and decided to move to New Orleans – a seemingly incompatible pair of lifestyle choices. He didn't own a car and, carrying only a small backpack, he caught a ride with a friend and I just before Mardi Gras. On that ride to New Orleans he talked about his decision. He was very clear about his need to make a change, saying he'd started in music at such a young age that he never had a real job and now he needed to take a break from music to find discipline in his life. 

He kept a low profile in New Orleans and managed to stay sober while taking a series of odd jobs (dish-washing, tree-trimming, house-painting, etc.) When he re-emerged a few years later as a recording artist & touring performer with a new repertoire, he'd taken charge of his life and musically he had re-invented himself (again). Continued interest in his earlier work, especially the neglected records he made with Big Star, caused his status as a “cult” figure to grow while he followed his own path and confounded critics who wished he would repeat the work from his past.

Alex Chilton: Thanks For Being So Nice explores his best-known musical accomplishments along with some more obscure chapters in his remarkably rich & diverse career. The perspective I gained on that ride from Memphis to New Orleans has been central to my understanding. The work he is most famous for was made before he left our hometown. In Memphis he became an instant star at age sixteen with The Box Tops and then found enormous artistic acclaim for his work with Big Star. But the life he lived while producing that music came at a personal cost. To save himself, or to find himself, he had to escape. He fell in love with New Orleans, another great capital of American music. While living there he set the terms for a modest but steady success. As a musician he continued to evolve while refusing to do anything he didn't want to do and he was able to endure a long career in the spotlight while retaining his humanity.