Chillin’ Out

The Mrs. and I still fondly remember a party we attended 20 years or so ago. Our friends had a great house, and a bunch of us spent a long evening and far into the night there, eating, drinking, smoking (legally and illegally), wrangling one another’s kids, telling stories, and listening to music. It’s remembered in our personal lore as “the Big Chill party.” Like in this clip, only less photogenic.

The characters in The Big Chill are in their late 30s, but this scene encapsulates a moment that a lot of people experience for the first time when they’re a bit younger: the realization that even though you have a spouse, and a house with appliances, and a job that pays real money—that you are good and truly grown up, in other words—you don’t have to give up the things you loved about being young. And even while taking care of your grown-up responsibilities—clearing the table and putting away the leftovers, say—you can still dance to the Temptations, or whatever you dug when you were in college. And most important of all, you begin to believe that you can always be that kind of person.

This is a boomer phenomenon, of course. Even after “teenager” became a separate stage of life starting in the 1950s, teen-hood was not a stage that smoothly segued into adulthood at first. There was a definite break, a gap that had to be jumped over. You became someone different when you became an adult. Were the teens who bought Elvis and Buddy Holly records in 1957 still listening to them religiously in 1972 to the exclusion of all others? Did they think of themselves as being the same people in 1972 that they were in 1957? I suspect not. But the characters in The Big Chill (and many, many people who came of age in later years, like The Mrs. and I) want to think they are the same people they were before.

The figure of the aging biker (or aging 50s rocker) trying to hold onto his youth as middle age encroached was present in popular culture during the 1970s, but my sense of it is that these figures were often considered pathetic. It wasn’t until the 60s generation started to age, in the early 80s at the time of The Big Chill, that striving to hold on to your youth—however you defined it, from your musical tastes to your ideals—became not only acceptable and desirable but the way it’s supposed to be. The boomers started it a quarter-century or more ago, and now it’s pretty much the norm.

Isn’t it?

I suspect that cultural historians will eventually see The Big Chill as an especially important artifact documenting the last half of the 20th century, showing how the attitudes of the generation that shaped that half-century changed, and how they didn’t, over time. As an artifact of film history, it’s also important: It marks the point at which filmmakers began plundering popular music’s back catalog for shortcuts to establish atmosphere and setting, which everybody does now. It’s likely responsible for the explosion in use of familiar pop songs in commercials, which continues today with no end in sight.

Caveat emptor: This post could be arrant bullshit. I may have misjudged the impact of The Big Chill, or missed some other movie that got to this territory first, or misread the timeline of boomer history. That’s the risk you take when reading a blog instead of a peer-reviewed academic journal. Fortunately, this blog is a place where you can weigh in with your own opinions, half-baked, fully baked, or otherwise. So if you have any thoughts on how the boomers or their preceding and succeeding generations grow up—or didn’t, or don’t, or do—jump in and share ’em.

Also: If you haven’t responded to the reader survey, please do. It will remain open for a few days yet.

11 thoughts on “Chillin’ Out

  1. I think you’ve nailed it, from the beginning of plundering the SIxties and early Seventies for soundtracks — “There is no other music” is, I believe, the line from The Big Chill — to the developing idea that we could stay young internally, at least. (We do so less successfully externally although we try, as witness the extensive use of plastic surgery, botox and even simply the gym.) As Boomers, we imposed our pop culture on society for years (and still to a great extent do so today). And ours was, I think, the first permanent pop culture. It’s worth recalling that the idea of popular music as bascially one fad following another still held true when the Beatles came to the U.S. Even Ringo didn’t seem to think the band’s popularity would last: Someone asked him what he would do when it was all over, and he said he’d open a hair salon. The idea that it could be all over, and soon, wasn’t shocking at the time. What was shocking – or at least surprising – was the idea of a pop group or performer having a shelf life. I think if you’d told any of the four of them in 1964 that the Beatles would be one of the best-selling groups of 2009, they’d have thought you mad. But that turned out to be true, and it seems to me that twenty-some years earlier, “The Big Chill” was both reflective and predictive: Not only did we hold on to the music of our youth, but we also held on to the way that music had made us feel.

  2. As far as use of pop music in films goes I’d argue that movies like The Graduate or Easy Rider beat The Big Chill to the punch. But I’d concede that while those movies might have done it first… The Big Chill did it best.

    As for speaking to a generation, being a child of the eighties in the eighties (born in ’76) I can’t really speak to that. Being of a younger generation I’m only now in my early 30s so I can’t relate to The Big Chill yet. Not sure if I’ll ever be able to as each generation as its own little quirks and eccentricities and I think that while some of the themes The Big Chill touched on are universal many of them were unique to that generation.

  3. jb

    @Perplexio: Good point about “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider.” It’s been a while since I’ve seen either one, so I can’t speak intelligently about their use of music and whether it was as wall-to-wall as in “The Big Chill.” I suspect a difference in degree, if not in kind, but I dunno.

    Regarding what resonates with each generation: I found myself wondering what the equivalent of “The Big Chill” might look like for people who grew up on the music of the 80s and 90s. Not what the specific songs would be–we can predict that pretty easily–but what the emotional content of such a film might be. Holding on to youth would be a universal, I think, but I wonder how that later generation would rate the importance of holding onto ideals. The 60s generation so much defined itself by the ideals it held to, but later generations were not so similarly obsessed.

    1. With my generation there’s the Peter Pan/Lost Boy syndrome. A generation of men in their 30s who still act like they’re in their late teens or early twenties. They get caught up in having fun and waiting for life to happen to them instead of grabbing life by the horns and taking control. As a result many of them wake up at some point in their 30s and wonder what the hell happened to the past 15 or so years and that they’ve got some serious catching up to do.

      Luckily, not all of us from that generation have been afflicted.

  4. The only point I’d add regarding the use of music as film soundtrack is that for “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider,” the music was current. In “The Big Chill,” it was consciously nostalgic.

  5. Where d’ya suppose “American Graffiti” fits into this discussion?
    If I remember right, the songs in that movie are not faithful to what was on the radio in August of ’62 or ’63, whichever year that was. Some of them hadn’t even come out yet at that point. Instead, they were chosen to evoke a mood.
    I don’t watch enough movies to participate intelligently on this topic; I just thought that was another movie worth mentioning.

  6. Yah Shure

    Aw, crap. And here I thought I’d been reading an esteemed academic journal all these years. I guess I should have noticed by now that this one didn’t induce narcolepsy.

    ‘American Graffiti’ was probably the first picture to inextricably wed a given generation’s “music of its life” to its story and characters. I don’t think it had anywhere near the level of emotional attachment that ‘The Big Chill’ seems to hold for some, but then again, University Avenue in St. Paul sports its share of ’50s-early ’60s street-rodders pining for the days of their youth on many a summer Saturday evening. Either that, or Porky’s Drive-In has one hell of a promotional budget.

    How would that ‘Chill’ clip have played out if Kline’s character had grabbed the ‘American Graffiti’ soundtrack LP instead of the Tempts’ Anthology? “1,2,3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock…” That kitchen would’ve been a real mess in no time. :)

  7. Yah Shure

    Oops! I see Kinky beat me to it while I was writing.

    Y’know, it would have been a lot simpler if Kline had just put on the ‘Big Chill’ soundtrack album. :)

  8. jb

    @Kinky and Yah Shure: See, I knew I’d miss something important: “American Graffiti,” which was released in 1973 may have been lurking in my head when I mentioned the pathetic aging biker/rocker figure; John the hot-rodder is on that path in the film. Seems to me the songs in “American Graffiti” are used somewhere between the way they’re used in “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” and in “The Big Chill.” They’re intended to inspire nostalgia among the audience members watching more than they meant to inspire for the characters. In “The Big Chill,” the music is practically a character in the film; in “American Graffiti” it’s more an element of the setting.

  9. Many of the movies of more recent years that use pop music prominently use more contemporary music or music of the era in which the movie is filmed. Cameron Crowe, being a rock critic turned director is one of the most notable directors to use music as such a focal point in his films from Say Anything to Jerry Maguire to Vanilla Sky to probably 2 of the most blatant and egregious uses of music in film Almost Famous and Elizabethtown.

    The late John Hughes was also known to use pop music prominently in his films to great effect– especially Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

    I’d also have to mention Mr. Holland’s Opus and Forrest Gump used musical montages as a device to show passage of time.

    The closest I’ve seen a movie come to using music to invoke nostalgia as what The Big Chill did was Grosse Point Blank. The effect was considerably different but I’d argue, at least for me, equally enjoyable.

  10. Steve E.

    To Kinky Paprika re “American Graffiti”: I once checked to see how accurate George Lucas was in the choice of music in terms of whether any of it was newer than its September 1962 setting (remember, the movie takes place just before the school year begins). With one exception, none of the music was newer than that time, and one, “Green Onions,” which is played during the big climactic race, was a current hit then. Yes, most of the soundtrack was filled with oldies, but hey, they WERE listening to Wolfman Jack play them. The one exception was “All Summer Long” by the Beach Boys, from 1964. but it’s not used in the movie itself — it’s played over the closing credits, and really, doesn’t it perfectly capture the spirit of the movie we’ve just seen?

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