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'Big Chill' Soundtrack: A Baby-Boomer Nostalgia Overdose

Music | March 12, 2019

The soundtrack to 'The Big Chill' was excellent driving music for Baby Boomers. Source: (eBay.com)

What's more memorable for you -- The Big Chill, or the Big Chill soundtrack? 

In 1983, several famous (or now-famous) movie stars got together for an ensemble comedy-drama called The Big Chill. The consensus critical and audience opinion on the movie was: It's okay. Pretty good. It has its moments. But The Big Chill's soundtrack was something else -- a collection of beloved hits from the late '60s and very early '70s, the 10-track collection seemed to capture perfectly a nostalgia that was bubbling beneath the surface. It had been 15 or so years since the late '60s (a period we often confuse with the whole of the '60s), and those who recalled so vividly and fondly the Woodstock era (even if they weren't full-on Woodstock types) were looking around at the '80s and wondering what happened.

They were, like the characters in the film, Baby Boomers. Many of them were old-ish yuppies, participating in the materialism of the '80s that seemed at odds with the ideals of their youth. The Big Chill soundtrack seemed to be just what they needed to take them back to a simpler time when, perhaps, they felt better about themselves. Well, that's true of the characters in the movie (who, in the movie, also listen to the songs on the soundtrack), if not every individual listener. Ten tracks of soul-soothing soul, buy it on cassette and pop it into the tape deck in your Saab or Volvo, turn it up louder after you've dropped the kids off at school -- that was a good time.

In fact, The Big Chill soundtrack was so popular and inspired so much nostalgia that it sparked a marketing trend. After the movie came out, more and more companies used 1960s songs in their advertising commercials and used nostalgia as a sales tactic. The producers of The Big Chill not only evoked that feeling of nostalgia with the sixties songs they included in the film, but they did so is such a masterful way that the songs blended into each scene. Let’s look at some of the best hits from the Big Chill soundtrack. 

Marvin Gaye, 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine'

Sleeve art for the German 45 rpm single release of 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine.' Source: (discogs.com)

The montage opening of The Big Chill features Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” a hit from 1968. This opening scene, in which the credits roll, is used to gather old college buddies from their different lives after receiving the news of their friend’s death. The catchy tune immediately sets the mood of The Big Chill snags the attention of its baby boomer audience. 

Marvin Gaye wasn't the only Motown artist to record "I Heard It Through The Grapevine;" in fact, in 1967, the version by Gladys Knight & The Pips had been a #2 hit on the Billboard pop chart. Motown founder Berry Gordy didn't think Gaye's version was strong enough to be a single, but included it as a track on Gaye's 1968 album Special Occasion. Radio DJs discovered the song and began playing it anyway, pushing Motown to release it as a single. The song spent seven weeks at the top of the chart.

Within a few years, we would see advertisers latch on to this hit for marketing purposes, notably Levi's jeans and the California Raisin Advisory Board. A re-recorded version by the "California Raisins" (singing raisins with arms and legs, depicted using claymation) made for one of the most popular ads of the 1980s. 

The Temptations, 'Ain't Too Proud To Beg'

The cast of The Big Chill. Source: (nytimes.com)

Although the friends in The Big Chill—played by Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Mary Kay Place, and JoBeth Williams—are reuniting for a sad reason, the death of their friend, the mood is lightened after the dinner scene when the group breaks out in spontaneous dancing to 'The Temptations’ 1966 hit, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” 

Like Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," the Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" was recorded with Motown producer Norman Whitfield. Whitfield used an arrangement that required Temptations' lead singer David Ruffin to sing the high notes just above his usual upper range, and you can hear the strain in his voice. It lends extra drama to the "begging" nature of the song. Whitfield used the same trick with Marvin Gaye two years later, to bring out extra anguish in his "Grapevine" vocal.

"Ain't Too Proud To Beg" is one of two Temptations songs on the soundtrack; "My Girl" also made the cut.

The Rascals, 'Good Lovin''

The Rascals in 1969. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

The Rascals' 1966 hit "Good Lovin'" is one of many tunes that play in the background as the story unfolds in The Big Chill. In this case, the actual composition of the song is used for comedic effect. Chloe, the young girlfriend of the deceased, is riding in a car with some other characters and shares the scandalous detail that "Alex and I made love the night before he died, it was fantastic" -- timed perfectly with the song's false ending. There's total silence for a second, as the stunned characters are processing Chloe's comment. Then the Rascals' loud vocals come crashing back in, with more meaning this time: "Good lovin' / Gimme that good good lovin..."

Aretha Franklin, '(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman'

Glenn Close played Sarah and Mary Kay Place played Meg in The Big Chill. Source: (themoviescene.co.uk)

When the old friends reunite in The Big Chill, one of the women, Meg (played by Mary Kay Place) confides to Sarah (played by Glenn Close) that she is desperate to get pregnant but her husband, Nick (William Hurt) is sterile. The two women discuss which men in the group would make good surrogate fathers. In the end, Sarah offers her own husband, Harold (Kevin Kline). As Meg and Harold go off to make love, Aretha Franklin’s megahit from 1967, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” plays. This tune is not only sultry and romantic, but the message is that Harold will help complete Meg’s role as a woman by getting her pregnant.

"Natural Woman" is one of a few Franklin songs -- "Respect" and "Think" are a couple others -- that became anthems of strong femininity, although Franklin said she wasn't thinking about it in that way at the time. Nonetheless she had her own way of identifying with the lyrics (by Carole King and Gerry Goffin). As she told Vogue, "When I first came into the business in the early ’60s out of the church, I didn’t wear makeup or anything like that. I was just very natural and happy with that. One evening, at the Trade Winds in Chicago, the club owner said to me, 'You’re going to have to put some makeup on, we can’t see her from the rear of the club, get some makeup on that girl!' So now I wear a little makeup, but I still feel like a natural woman."

Procul Harum, 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'

Procol Harum's 1967 hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was featured on The Big Chill soundtrack. Source: (billboard.com)

Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade Of Pale," from 1967, was an anthem of the Summer Of Love. Its melody is adapted from a Johann Sebastian Bach, and its lyrics have been the cause for much analysis over the years. Two of the clearer lines -- "I was feeling kind of seasick / But the crowd called out for more" seem to indicate that it's first-person narrative by a singer on stage, but songwriter Keith Reid has said that the imagery is largely evocative, not literal. The narrator is losing (or being dumped by) a girl, and everything's going haywire.

The Miracles, "The Tracks Of My Tears"

Snokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966. Source: (blogs.loc.gov)

Many of the songs picked for the Big Chill soundtrack express bittersweet sentiments, or have sad lyrics embedded in joyous, danceable music. "The Tracks Of My Tears" by The Miracles (later and better known as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles) is one of the most fitting for the movie's action, which features a party-like reunion on the occasion of a friend's death. As the characters groove on and belt out some of their favorite retro hits, they're all trying to suppress their sadness -- or as Robinson says it:

People say I'm the life of the party
'Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hearty
Deep inside I'm blue
So take a good look at my face
You'll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it's easy to trace
The tracks of my tears

Three Dog Night, 'Joy To The World'

Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill. Source: (yahoo.com)

As the weekend reunion draws to a close for the characters in The Big Chill, the friends vow to stay in touch and get together more often. One character, Michael (played by Jeff Goldblum) jokes that “We’re not leaving. We’re never leaving” as Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” from 1971 is played. Ending the film on this note gives a happy ending to the audience. The characters, that started the movie is sadness and shock, end their weekend reunion with a renewed sense of friendship and hope for the future. 

There Was Enough For A Second Soundtrack

Percy Sledge. Source: (abcnews.go.com)

The Big Chill phenomenon was such that a second soundtrack was released, collecting another 11 songs that had played during the movie. These included Percy Sledge’s 1966 hit “When A Man Loves A Woman” and more Motown soul classics from the likes of the Four Tops, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, and Marvin Gaye (again). But More Songs From The Original Soundtrack Of The Big Chill contained a greater variety of late-'60s/early-'70s hits, including music by The Band, Steve Miller Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Beach Boys.

"Big Chill" came to denote a genre in itself, and for listeners who couldn't get enough of the oldies, Motown began releasing compilations branded as The Good Feeling Music Of The Big Chill Generation. There were at least five such collections.

The Rolling Stones, 'You Can't Always Get What You Want'

The Rolling Stones in 1969, the same year they released "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Source: (morrisonhotelgallery.com)

While The Big Chill is noted for its soundtrack, it's also been noted that the most affecting song in the movie doesn't appear on soundtrack album at all. Early on in The Big Chill is the funeral of Alex, the group’s friend, who died by suicide. The funeral is told in a series of vignettes while the Rolling Stones’s 1969 hit, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is played. The melancholy music and the message of the lyrics punctuate the senseless death of Alex and the sadness and grief of the moment. 

Tags: Aretha Franklin | Movie Soundtracks | Otis Redding | Procul Harum | Smokey Robinson | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Big Chill | The Temptations

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.