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In a scene in 2000’s “High Fidelity,” Jack Black and Todd Louiso’s record store clerk characters are coming up with a list of the top five songs about death. Black mentions “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but Louiso reminds him that the song was used in “The Big Chill.” “Oh, God, you’re right,” says Black, and the song is disqualified.
That’s how toxic “The Big Chill” was to popular culture — so much so that even unassailable items that preceded it, like the Rolling Stones classic, were tainted by association.
It’s true, of course, that “The Big Chill,” released 30 years ago this month (on September 28, 1983), touched a huge raw nerve in the culture and became an enormous mainstream hit as a result. It’s also true that it’s a very enjoyable movie, full of witty and truthful moments in well-wrought performances by a stellar ensemble of then-rising stars.
But the movie was also responsible for a huge, devastating wave of Baby Boomer nostalgia and navel-gazing, one that all but swamped pop culture for years afterward, a tsunami whose effects are still felt even today.
“Big Chill” wasn’t exactly an original idea — critics at the time noted its similarity to John Sayles “Return of the Secaucus 7,” an independently released, less glossy movie with a cast of unknowns, and a college-radical-reunion movie more politically-minded than “Big Chill” would turn out to be — but it was well-executed and well-packaged. Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek’s screenplay managed to be meticulously structured while appearing loose and spontaneous. The actors — thirtysomethings Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, and William Hurt, along with a young Meg Tilly — gave lived-in performances and had chemistry that made them seem like real friends. Under Kasdan’s direction, they breathed life into eight people who may have seemed little more than standard character types on the page.
Maybe there was some novelty then in the notion of former college radicals who’d become successful pillars of the establishment they once fought (like the wealthy host couple played by Kline and Close), or the never-married public defender who yearns for both a lucrative law career and a baby to raise on her own (Place’s character). The others — the actor disillusioned with his own fame (Berenger), the self-loathing celebrity journalist who’d never become the novelist he once dreamed he’d be (Goldblum), the bored housewife with a crush on an old flame (Williams), the bitter and drug-abusing Vietnam veteran (Hurt), and the shallow young woman who’s more interested in aerobics than in saving the world — were all clichéd stereotypes even before “Big Chill.”
The movie threw all these characters together at the funeral of one of their own, whose mysterious suicide forces them to realize how unfulfilled their lives seem compared to the world-shaking dreams they had as college classmates in the 1960s. They’ve gone from hippies to yuppies, selling out their ideals and goals with alarming ease and speed. Their weekend reunion brings about some soul-searching and maybe even a little guilt, but by the end (especially after a final night when just about everyone gets laid), they’ve convinced themselves that they’re still cool because they still have a spark left of that rebellious, freel-love spirit of the Age of Aquarius.
Granted, it’s hard to imagine anyone would want to see the downbeat, grim movie this would be if the characters didn’t let themselves off the hook, but there’s still something disappointing in the way the characters back away from their moral self-examination.
The movie also had an impeccable soundtrack of Motown classics and other period hits, each of which literally struck a chord of memory for a time when even the most innocuous pop and soul tunes felt inextricably intertwined with the socio-political ferment of the era. The soundtrack
album was an enormous smash, coming just months after the landmark Motown 25th anniversary TV special and staying on the chart for nearly two years afterward. Since then, a Motown track or two (or five) has become a lazy shorthand way for filmmakers to evoke the 1960s or the nostalgia of Baby Boomers, or simply fun and good times with cross-generational appeal.
Indeed, filmmakers and Hollywood studios seemed to learn all the wrong lessons from the success of “The Big Chill” and its soundtrack. Suddenly, it seemed, it was all Boomer nostalgia all the time. Curiously, it wasn’t nostalgia for their college years of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll (and, oh yeah, social protest, man), but for their pre-college years as children and teenagers. Numerous coming-of-age movies came out that were set in 1963; even those that didn’t involve the John F. Kennedy assassination in November of that year still used the looming event as shorthand for loss of innocence and the end of childhood. (Among these 1963 movies: “The Flamingo Kid,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Shag,” “Mermaids,” “Love Field,” and “A Perfect World.” You could also add more recent movies, including “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Help.”) Very few movies were set in the more politically fraught late ’60s unless they were about the Vietnam War. (Oliver Stone played out the loss-of-innocence narrative in “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” while Barry Levinson managed to set Vietnam to a Motown soundtrack by making “Good Morning, Vietnam,” a movie about an army DJ in Saigon.)
It got to the point where seemingly every film had to have at least one Motown chestnut on the soundtrack. And if you couldn’t put a golden oldie on the soundtrack, you could still name the film after one; even contemporary teen comedies took their titles from ’50s and ’60s pop songs (“Sixteen Candles,” “Can’t Buy Me Love.”)
Even movies about younger people seemed to be infected with the nostalgia bug. “St. Elmo’s Fire” saw a group of seven friends already nostalgic for college after only a few months out in the real world. “When Harry Met Sally,” whose characters were a decade younger than those of “Big Chill,” saw its romance played out to pre-war pop and jazz standards, as in a Woody Allen movie. “Peter’s Friends” in 1992 was a virtual clone of “Big Chill,” a country weekend reunion of British college classmates about 15 years younger than those of the 1983 film. Kasdan himself shuffled around the elements of “Big Chill” for his own “Grand Canyon,” though he added for the first time a welcome African-American perspective. (The glaring whiteness of “Big Chill” and the nostalgia wave that followed — that’s a whole ‘nother essay. Suffice it to say, Hollywood has never made a black “Big Chill.”) Even the all-night end-of-high-school party of 1993’s “Dazed and Confused” was set at a nostalgic remove of 17 years earlier.
The Boomer nostalgia stranglehold on the culture extended to other media as well. Think of TV, where “thirtysomething” and “The Wonder Years” reigned, or a classic-rock radio environment that was totally unprepared for the onslaught of hip-hop and alt-rock in the early ’90s.
When Gen Xers started making their own movies in the ’90s, they represented a backlash against the Boomer cinema of “The Big Chill.” Deeply cynical, mistrustful of political idealism (because they’d seen, in movies like “Big Chill,” how easily it transformed into greedy materialism), and with nostalgic totems of their own that were totally divorced form politics, the Gen Xers made films that offered fat raspberries to Boomer nostalgia cinema. Movies like “Reality Bites” or 1995’s “Kicking and Screaming” could be wistful and earnest, but they were also prematurely disillusioned and jaded.
“Grosse Pointe Blank,” in which hitman John Cusack attends his high school reunion, was practically a parody of “Big Chill”-type nostalgia and the notion that young people had ever been idealistic and selfless. Cusack followed that up with the aforementioned “High Fidelity,” in which music geekdom and nostalgia are traps that prevent the characters from maturing and moving forward. Even Cusack’s recent farce, 2010’s “Hot Tub Time Machine,” a movie that proudly admits to its crass nostalgia for ’80s teen sex comedies, still manages to make fun of both the reisgned disillusionment of its middle-aged protagonists and the goal-oriented idealism of their college-aged selves.
Even now, in 2013, we haven’t entirely shaken off the influence of “The Big Chill.” In October, we’ll see “Parkland,” yet another drama set in 1963 (in fact, it’s a JFK assassination drama, set in the Dallas hospital where he was brought after the shooting). We’ve also seen “The World’s End,” which seems to satirize the nostalgic-reunion genre by adding an invasion of alien robots.
What we’re not seeing is a whole bunch of Gen Y nostalgia movies (yet) or movies that use a 2001 setting as a metaphor for the characters’ loss of innocence. Maybe it’s because Hollywood is starting to realize that millennials don’t go to the movies; they just stream from Netflix and watch clips as time permits on their tablets and smartphones. In fact, the only demographic that still reliably goes to movie theaters is Baby Boomers. Once Hollywood figures that out, it’ll be 1960s nostalgia time all over again.