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.
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.
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