by Paul Deeter
When I was a kid until I was a teenager I grew up surrounded by music. I still am surrounded by music, but in a sense in the 'good ole days' of childhood I was truly immersed in so much of it. I'm not an old man by any means but there was something about the ability to walk around with a CD-Walkman playing discs that would skip occasionally just to keep music in my head between busses. I can thank both my possession of a walkman and a young appreciation for music from my parents and my extended family. I was organically introduced to more music when I was a teenager, discovering some rap gems and even some love for metal. While this is going to sound forceful, I think some of my most lasting musical tastes have come from what my father and mother would play on our car rides and what music my extended family would perform at our get-togethers and holidays. I can't think of a single early memory at my grandparents' house that didn't end in a guitar session with my uncle and older cousins. And after I got older, I learned that this was a unique family experience, not just in the music that we played but also the fact that we were so musical with one another. This is where The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Van Morrison, and many more artists of an earlier time were "in-organically" introduced to me. They were encouraged, shared like gifts passed down per generation. Not every kid grew up with his relatives singing along to "Brown Eyed-Girl" at 10pm at night after a long day of Thanksgiving feasts. I don't take these memories for granted. These were times that haven't quite been touched into since, outside of unfortunately sadder circumstances that brought us together. Even before the pandemic distanced us, time distances all of us from our families and closest friends. Life catches up and things change, but then comes the weddings and also sadly the passings, in each of our families that end up drawing us back together. But in these get-togethers, some magic always happens in the reunion of our lost friends and family members. For me it always felt like the band getting back together.
"Getting the band back together" is a term often used musically, but the idea of reconnecting with old partners can feel like a band coming together in many ways. At least it always felt that way for myself, seeing relatives outside of the occasional Zoom call or phonecall. I believe that's the sentiment that Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill has for its characters, who are not blood-related but instead friends on different journeys that drew them apart. Outside of distance some of these characters, who all graduated from University of Michigan 15 years ago, also have varying degrees of success and purpose in their own lives. They are all drawn back together for a funeral of their friend Alex (who is never seen) and end up staying at the Cooper's summer home for the weekend. These characters include Michael Gold, (played by Jeff Goldblum), a beat writer who's tied up in his work and sense of intellectual superiority to his friends. There's Sam Weber (Tom Berenger), an action TV star who can't even attend a funeral without being asked for an autograph. He seems to wear success with pain, he cringes when asked to recite lines by strangers and can't join his friends when they put his show on. Glenn Close plays Dr. Sarah Cooper, married to our lead Harold (Kevin Kline) who seems to suffer the most silently, avoiding the rest of the group to cry in the shower while they laugh over college memories. There's also talents William Hurt, Mary Kay Place and Meg Tilly to join in this ensemble get-together. Each of these characters is well-written and hashed out with their own insecurities, played out in some subtle but amazing comedy timing.
For example, Michael is referred to in an earlier scene as a lazy unaware writer who sleeps in often. A few scenes later we get a montage of the friends waking up and grabbing coffee, joining Sarah at the breakfast table as time passes. The last to join her, and even grab a cup of coffee from a pot that had been likely set out for over two hours, is Michael. And he asks, "Am i the first one up?" Moments like these are spread out throughout the movie, and don't rely on immediate punchlines but linger in our head enough to catch us off guard when they land. There's some great physical humor too and quicker laughs, like when a cop who pulls over one of the friends' only agrees to let him off with a warning if Sam shows off one of the stunts on his show. Spoiler alert: he does, and it's pretty clear he doesn't do his own stunts. These scenes give the cast character moments, but to the film's credit each actor lives comfortably in their characters from the first scene on. And kudos to the script which kept me laughing scene after scene. There's a sharp exchange with Alex's girlfriend mentioning that the last night of his life they had sex, to which William Hurt's Nick drolly responds: "He went out with a bang, not a whimper." This T.S. Eliot quote gets a kick reaction from the author Michael, but goes over the girlfriend's head which is a nice touch. Then there's a moment where three grown men are attempting to shoo a bat out of the attic and in the process of opening a window, let another bat in. Hurt's reaction is "Well now it's a fair fight."
The dry humor here is matched with real feeling performances, nobody here is slacking on comedic delivery or holding out on the more tender moments of reconciliation. A scene of laughter can end in tears, a quick joke misinterpreted by one of the characters can end in a fight. All of this feels like a real friendship, even a family that's rusty to each other but hasn't lost the same sense of shared love with one another. I think what's most beautiful is the shared musical tastes of the friends. And here is where the film soars. These are friends who share musical interests with one another and dance to songs while putting away dishes in the kitchen. And damn the music is good! We're listening to Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Three Dog Night for example with as much interest as the friends in each scene. And the soundtrack would go on to having a more lasting impact than the film. The film did well, with mostly favorable reviews, but the soundtrack sold upwards of six million copies since it's release. It worked inside and outside of the film. Kasdan stated on that:
It's about a cocoon of people who come together for a weekend and care about each other in a scary world. The music was like a drug pumped into the theater, putting everyone in a great mood. People my age at that time had not yet been conveyed in the movies. And it was not just the film's music that resonated with audiences, but also the music of the dialogue."
I don't think that the music is necessarily for everyone, and in the time the movie came out it was considered old school and classic to the audiences. But that's what clicked with theater-goers, that sense of nostalgia from a generation who get together to reminisce on just how young it feels to listen to this music again. These feelings are shared by these college graduates as nostalgic, and when a lot of films came out prior to this one in the 80s, it wasn't so common to hear such confident soundtracks from an era before. It's well summed up on the Criterion disc set...with its playlist of sixties rock and R&B hits, The Big Chill all but invented the consummately curated soundtrack. Instead of composing original music, it fondly turned back the clock and made an ultimate old-school playlist. But mind you this was a long time ago, and today's generation or even the one before mine may not click as well to the soundtrack or the revelry of the ensemble cast.
So what worked for me? Part of me can appreciate a good gem of a film tucked away in a hodge-podge decade for comedies and cult classics. I'm never one to deny the quality of a Criterion release, and with my library rental of this one, I don't regret that one bit. But in the Criterion description alone it's considered a "boomer milestone." This to some may sound off-putting, with the connotations left for that generation. Fan of the film Marc Maron admits: it made boomers cool. That didn’t really last. As far as my perspective as a millennial, I think what clicks with me doesn't come so much from my age and the music I grew up with, but instead the music my family and parents grew up with. This movie teleported me back to the early 2000s, dancing to Barenaked Ladies' renditions played on acoustic guitars. There's a scene in this film where the friends dance while putting away leftovers to The Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'". This felt straight out of a memory for me, and I'm sure this film might do the same to others too. I am lucky to have grown up surrounded by music of a time before mine, and to appreciate some bands that could now be considered "dad rock" or uncool. This movie touched on that in ways I completely unexpected, and while it may not do the same for everyone, I encourage young audiences to see where the film takes them.