A little over halfway through The Big Chill, Harold (Kevin Kline) puts The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” on the turntable and starts rocking out. He’s quickly joined by the half dozen friends who are spending the weekend in his house, and the next few minutes see the entire ensemble dancing around the kitchen, shaking their butts as they clear the dinner table and wash the dishes. This sequence may be the quintessential cinematic depiction of musical nostalgia, and it helped The Big Chill soundtrack become a top 20 hit on the Billboard chart that year, even though the album consists entirely of high-profile oldies. It’s sobering to think that the contemporary equivalent—“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” peaked at #13 on Billboard’s Hot 100 the week of July, 16, 1966, which was 17 years prior to The Big Chill—would have a group of friends getting jiggy to Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” (#13 the week of July 12, 1997).
It’s not just sobering, actually (that’s primarily a matter of taste), it’s eye-opening. Like American Graffiti, The Big Chill belongs to a nearly forgotten time when culture metamorphosed so rapidly that it made sense to feel deeply nostalgic for the previous decade or two, which could feel like a whole different world. The film’s loose narrative involves a group of old college pals, now in their mid-30s, assembling for the funeral of another friend who’d committed suicide, then spending a couple of days collectively wondering what became of their former radical ideals. John Sayles had explored roughly the same idea a few years earlier in Return Of The Secaucus 7, but it was Lawrence Kasdan’s more accessible, Motown-fueled take that caught the public imagination, introducing and/or firmly establishing a handful of major actors in the process.
Each character gets a potent introduction during The Big Chill’s opening credit sequence, set to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” as Kasdan’s camera slowly pulls back from their grief-stricken faces just after they’ve heard the news. Harold and his wife, Sarah (Glenn Close), have the most stable relationship, which they’ll demonstrate when Meg (Mary Kay Place) reveals that she’s looking for someone willing to get her pregnant, no strings attached. Other members of the crew include Sam (Tom Berenger), the Tom Selleck-like star of a popular cop show; Karen (JoBeth Williams), the not-so-happily married wife and mother with unresolved feelings for Sam; Michael (Jeff Goldblum), a lonely, perpetually wisecracking reporter for People; and Nick (William Hurt), a Vietnam vet who was apparently wounded in some way that prevents normal sexual function, now dividing his time between self-medication and bitterness. On the periphery sits the dead man’s younger girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly), who represents a new generation depicted as blithely unreflective. “I don’t like talking about my past as much as you guys do,” she says.
Thing is, there’s not actually that much discussion of the past in The Big Chill. Kasdan had originally planned to end the film with a flashback showing the characters as they had once been—Kevin Costner, then completely unknown, was cast as Alex, the future suicide—but the scene was deemed unnecessary and omitted. (Sadly, it’s not included among the Criterion edition’s nine minutes of deleted scenes; the only footage of Costner remains shots of Alex’s body being dressed during the opening credits.) Whether it would have worked, we’ll never know. But while the actors collectively do a superb job of conveying the nature of longtime friendships among people who rarely see each other anymore, there’s a glibness to the various complications among the ensemble that more emphasis on their memories of their activist days might have alleviated. Kasdan relies primarily on the music to fill the void, which makes some sequences, like a touch football game set to “Gimme Some Lovin’,” come across as merely cute, especially compared to Sayles’ more caustic reunion. Or maybe “cozy” is the right word, in keeping with the soundtrack’s parade of hits and the warm bubble of nostalgia they create. Can “MMMBop” serve that function today?