Soundtrack Studies: ‘The Big Chill’

Tuesday, April 15 by
BRING ON THE NOSTALGIA.  

Two weeks ago, when I was discussing the Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack, I mentioned that nostalgia is “a big card to play.” It’s a very evocative technique that, for a film or music, takes the viewer/listener back to another time, ushering them through their own lives, rather than taking them on a journey in a vacuum through the story.

In both Grosse Pointe Blank and The Big Chill, the nostalgic music was largely diegetic, meaning the characters in the films can hear it. In the case of Grosse Pointe Blank, the nostalgic efforts aren’t directly pandering to the audience. Martin Blank can hear the music of his high school years, at his high school reunion, and it forces him to acknowledge and study the normal life he eschewed. Not groundbreaking stuff, buy it made for a pretty fun film and terrific soundtrack.

THEN THERE’S THE BIG CHILL.

The Big Chill is one of those films about “growing up.” Which is fine, growing up is a big part of life. Without growing up, we all would still be babies, and how would we eat at new restaurants?

The Big Chill examines a group of a half-dozen friends who attended college together in the late 60′s who are brought back together in 1983 or so after their friend commits suicide. The cast remains fairly iconic to this day with Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, Meg Tilly, and William Hurt. They stay the weekend together to find that they’re all suffering from pretty unremarkable adult problems – they’re broke, being cheated on, cheating, baby-crazy, etc.

So, these adults have all these adult problems. But unlike the age today where you can’t swing a dead cat without running into a Buzzfeed list of “25 Worst Things About Growing Up,” or reading an article about how 30 year-olds can’t find jobs and live at home, no one was really bitching about growing up THAT much in 1983. If they were, it wasn’t on a platform as large as a movie screen. So, that nostalgia that we’re sick of and the problems that young-ish adults face aren’t exactly a revelation. But what we see throughout this entire film, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, are these miserable-ish people all trying to go home again. And that’s sad in the context of the movie, then it becomes sad in a different way when Baby Boomers make this film and its soundtrack anthemic to their generation.

And there’s no more effective, or heavy-handed way to drive that point across by playing songs from the characters’ halcyon days, where everything was great, and kids were being kids. Through the lens of 30 years of hindsight, the premise reads as quaint and the soundtrack to support is so on-the-nose that it seems to have been curated through a survey by the U.S. Department of Innocuous Nostalgia.

Now granted, I can’t say I’m of the generation that found kicking back with a doobie and listening to Three Dog Night and The Temptations to be a “good time,” but that’s ok. I understand it. I don’t actually, but for the sake of diplomacy and to appear magnanimous, I’ll say I do.

Another interesting aspect here is the time passed between the present for the characters and the era they look back to. It’s not that far back. Can you be nostalgic 15 years back? You can if you’re a fashion designer or remaking a crappy movie, but it’s hard to take any pop culture from 15 years ago that seriously. Here’s a list of the Top 100 songs of 1999. Take one of them seriously. I dare you.

The good news with so much of this soundtrack being diegetic is that the director, Lawrence Kasdan, doesn’t seem to be breaking the fourth wall, tapping you on the shoulder, then whispering, “Remember this song?” to lure you in. Thank God for small miracles there.

The bad news is that seeing the characters run for refuge in the music of their youth isn’t as heartening as one would hope. For instance, after a particularly traumatic dinner, the “gang” dusts themselves off and does the dishes.

If I didn’t recognize Glenn Close, I would have sworn this was an early-80′s commercial for Tupperware. It seems that trite.

However, the skepticism surrounding any overture to our youth as a marketing ploy probably didn’t exist back then, and so people listening to a bunch of catchy pop 15 years after its prime for no particular reason seems like a crass exercise, but it’s not like people aren’t doing that right now. I wish I could say that I was listening to Ricky Martin or Crazy Town as I was writing this, but I’m not. I’m listening to my air conditioner and a few birds. Which no one would care about because it doesn’t harken back to simpler times.

But it’s pretty nice, even if it wouldn’t make for a great film. But if I was listening to a song right now, it would probably be this:

Warning: It won’t make doing the dishes any better, nor will it bring your dead friends back. You’re going to need Three Dog Night for that.

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