The Big Chill

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Motown, 1983

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/16/2020

Fifteen years out from the Summer of Love, the generation that grew up in the paisley glow of hippiedom found itself in a darker place. War and scandal and inflation and recession and the simple passage of time had corroded the innocence and idealism manifested in “be-ins” and flower power. From doing good, many had turned instead to doing well.

But—and this is true of every generation—they’d always have their music. Music, that engine of memory that becomes so interwoven with experience that a single line can carry you back in time instantly to the moment it first entered your consciousness. Like all films, The Big Chill was a product of its times (the early 80s), and may strike the viewer differently 37 years after it was released, less a cultural touchstone for a generation than a lily-white deep dive into privileged suburban first world problems, whose soundtrack is, with unintended irony, dominated by black artists writing and singing about a parallel but very different world.

That troublesome sidebar aside, though, let’s keep our focus on what we all came for: the music. It’s pretty damned great.

In just 10 songs, The Big Chill soundtrack delivers a valedictory summation of a transformative musical era, moving from the bright-eyed innocence of the early ’60s to the harder-edged, more daring fare that came to prominence in the latter half of the decade. This initial soundtrack album—soon joined by a second full album and much later collected and expanded into a less representative deluxe edition—is rich with Motown classics, supplemented by other favorite ’60s hits selected by Big Chill writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s wife Meg.

The songs chosen offer a broad spectrum of moods and styles, from the smooth and shiny pop of the Temptations’ “My Girl” to the growling r&b of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” to the giddy rock hootenanny of Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World,” which rolled over the film’s closing credits. Yet the songs all feel of a piece in the context of the movie. The melancholy romanticism of Smokey Robinson And The Miracles’ “Tracks Of My Tears” somehow fits in snugly next to the hyperactive rave-up of The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’” and the assertive proto-feminist soul-pop of The Exciters’ “Tell Him.”

And then, at the heart of the album, you get a trio of stone cold soul classics: “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” by the Temptations, “I Second That Emotion” by Smokey and company, and the immortal Aretha Franklin rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” (The further inclusion of Procol Harum’s elegaic “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” might strike some listeners as on-the-nose ironic today, but it the context of the movie, it amplifies the mood of the scene where it plays beautifully.)

As other reviewers have noted, much like the memories the film evokes for some viewers, the songs themselves have become intertwined with the scenes in which they appear, as the film’s Baby Boom ensemble sorts through the rubble of their own backstories and sort out their places in the transformed world of 1983. It’s one more reason these songs and the film they help bring to life resonate so strongly for so many. Heard through a modern lens, they feel today like musical comfort food.

A closing note: for better or for worse, The Big Chill soundtrack touched off a phenomenon we’ve seen play out ever since—rose-colored nostalgia for an earlier era that was always much more complex and full of contradictions than memory strains to render it. Classic rock radio and a thousand other boomer cultural call-backs were kicked off by this movie and this soundtrack, which could result in some mixed feelings, but really shouldn’t, because the movie can’t be held responsible for all that followed in its wake. And the music always was, and always will be, fantastic.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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