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Still from The Big Chill, 1983. © Maximum Film/Alamy

Joy to the World

On the music of The Big Chill and Forrest Gump

The only song that appears in both The Big Chill (1983) and Forrest Gump (1994) is Three Dog Night’s exuberant “Joy to the World,” whose delirious mash-up of Biblical allusions, anti-war rhetoric and free-love bawdiness made it a kind of consensus hit in culturally polarized times: in terms of sales and airplay, it was the biggest song of 1971. Where Three Dog Night was a pure El Lay band, “Joy to the World” was written by an Oklahoman, Hoyt Axton, whose mother Mae actually co-wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley—a coincidence that recalls the (obviously speculative) scene in Forrest Gump where the King is shown honing his craft in an Alabama boarding-house room. “Joy to the World”’s appearance in Gump is relatively unimportant: it plays behind scenes of the hero practicing ping-pong diplomacy in front of an enormous mural of Chairman Mao—a bit of classic-rock patriotism. But its use as an overture in The Big Chill—sung hoarsely at bath time by a young child right before his Dad gets some bad news via telephone—is suggestive: the sound of a cozy, insular bubble bursting.

“Anyone who believes himself to have been a revolutionary or a deeply committed radical during his student-demonstration days in the late sixties is likely to find The Big Chill despicable” wrote Pauline Kael in 1983, dropping a rather heavy gauntlet at the outset of what is ultimately a fairly laudatory review. A rare example of a “grown-up” commercial hit at the onset of the almost mandatorily family-friendly ’80s, Lawrence Kasdan’s slickly produced sophomore feature orbits a group of former University of Michigan hellraisers commiserating amid their respective mid-life crises. After a former classmate commits suicide, they’re obliged to travel en masse to a funeral in South Carolina, where they try to cauterize old wounds over the course of one long, emotionally fraught weekend.

As Kael implies, the film’s actual political content is null: we’re told that the characters are lapsed idealists instead of shown anything about their values or beliefs. But she also noted—again, correctly—that this void is offset by genuine pleasures: witty dialogue; skillful acting by a troupe of rising stars including Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, and an Oscar-nominated Glenn Close; and a perfectly curated soundtrack of period hits. The latter was especially central to the film’s impact and popularity. Describing Kline’s character Harold Cooper—the self-made athletic shoe entrepreneur who’s taken it upon himself to organize this morbid class reunion at his rustic home in swampy Beaufort—Kael drew a bead on the way The Big Chill’s carefully programmed internal jukebox collapsed the distance between the film’s Boomer characters and their contemporaries in the audience. “[Harold] doesn’t look back, except musically,” wrote Kael, slyly invoking the specter of Bob Dylan. “The sixties for him are the rock ’n’ roll records he loves.”

Looking back—in anger or otherwise—was a key theme of the paradigm-shifting period known as The New Hollywood, whose keynote films vibrated with subversion: the skepticism of directors who came of artistic age as cracks were starting to show in the foundation of Pax Americana. If George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) effectively erased the musical legacy of the sixties by hearkening back to the hits (and ethos) of the 1950s—a clever rearguard move that ultimately yielded the creation of the retro-kitschy Star Wars (1977)—The Big Chill sought to reinscribe it, culling together a generous selection of soul, pop, psychedelia, and good old-fashioned chooglin’. In a moment when Hollywood studios sought ancillary synergy between movies and their soundtracks—a phenomenon spearheaded by American Graffiti and then Saturday Night Fever (1977), which stared down the nascent “Disco Sucks” crowd through John Travolta’s gelignite eyes—The Big Chill tapped a deep, profitable vein of nostalgia, not altogether different from the halcyon rhetoric emanating at the time from the White House. By the end of the 1980s, the album had sold over six million copies in the U.S. alone. 

Kasdan had proved himself an adept postmodernist via the serial pastiche of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which he wrote with Lucas. For The Big Chill, he emulated the Martin Scorsese of Mean Streets (1973), syncopating the action to background rhythms with subliminal finesse. Take the prologue, which cuts slickly from “Joy to the World” to Marvin Gaye’s cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”—an anxious, paranoid rendition that drenches the song’s he-said-she-said intrigue in bad vibes. Or a group dinnertime cleanup session powered by The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” the memories of salad days past juxtaposed with actual salad (and Saran Wrap). When it’s revealed that the dearly departed Alex (played as a present-tense corpse in a faceless, motionless performance by Kevin Costner) chose as his memorial dirge “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the joke is double-edged, cutting like a scalpel through the shroud of the character’s own fatal depression and his friends’ seemingly contagious spiritual malaise; as the song goes on and we exit the church into a somber highway funeral procession, it’s as if Mick Jagger were presiding over a wake for an entire countercultural cohort and their failures.

Later on, a needle drop of The Band’s picaresque sing-along “The Weight” wafts over scenes of hungover houseguests drifting through Harold’s kitchen, looking skeptically at the spotless cross-trainers bestowed on them by their host. “The Weight” is a deeply, if obliquely, political song—a hymn to the necessity of shared, collective burdens. But Kasdan doesn’t use it that way; in lieu of a mournful last waltz, it’s mood music. The incongruity points out a larger vacuum as well; that the charming, ever-obliging Harold—obsequious to the point that he allows his wife Sarah (Close) to volunteer him as stud to their single pal Meg (Mary Kay Place)—has cheerfully branded his shoe company start-up “Running Dogs” hints at what Kael may have found despicable about the The Big Chill: the way that Kasdan co-opted so much vital, principled music into a self-congratulatory fable of personal and ideological compromise.

“I don’t know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations,” snarks Goldblum’s self-infatuated journalist Michael (an archetype he’d already sketched to perfection in Joan Micklin Silver’s 1977 alt-journalism comedy Between the Lines). It’s a great, accusatory line, but it ultimately boomerangs back on a movie that likes its characters too much to leave them on the hook. Ditto Harold’s jibe that “masturbation [is] the ultimate act of self-absorption,” which could easily be directed towards the soundtrack department. The film’s tonal progression from death-tinged to life-affirming undermines any claims to Reagan-era critique: the final scenes, which literally include a group hug, basically depict morning in America. That Kasdan’s script was so obviously inspired—a nicer way of saying ripped off—from John Sayles’s microbudget 1980 drama The Return of the Secaucus Seven, adds injury to insult. Not only did Sayles’ film deal more directly with the underlying theme of exhausted idealism —and the hornet’s nest of nostalgic, incestuous affection that’s woven around old friends when they’re in close proximity—he did it without any pricey musical lubrication, generating emotion (and identification) through solid, old-fashioned dramaturgy. 

Even back in 1983, the conspicuous absence of any Black protagonists in The Big Chill rang alarm bells for certain viewers, especially given the ex-activist bona fides ascribed to several characters (Kasdan was himself an alumnus of the Eugene V. Debs Cooperative House at the University of Michigan). With this in mind, could the use of Procol Harum’s soaring, melancholic “A Whiter Shade of Pale” be a satirical commentary on the fallacy of positioning these particular figures as surrogates for a once-rebellious generation? The answer, of course, is no, but the relationship between the whiteness of Big Chill’s ensemble and the African-American music that serves variably to soothe their nerves and charge their libidos is worth parsing.

Motown dominates the soundtrack of The Big Chill, sometimes as joyful ambience—the dinner party, which Kline literally kick-starts with an ecstatic shimmy after turning on the phonograph—and sometimes as a sort of Greek Chorus, as when Meg’s baby-making adventure is paired with Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” In scene after scene, the music of Smokey Robinson et. al seconds the characters’ emotions, and also—implicitly and more than a bit insidiously—spackles in the cracks of the script’s demographic absences. The cumulative impact is a sly simulacrum of racial solidarity made even more uncomfortable given the bayou setting. Yes, the heroes of The Big Chill met in Michigan, but Harold’s drawl suggests he might more plausibly be spinning Lynyrd Skynyrd in his spare time—that, or the idea is that these pasty Northern liberals are using the music not only to look back but to insulate themselves against their temporary surroundings.

“The Weight” is a deeply, if obliquely, political song—a hymn to the necessity of shared, collective burdens. But Kasdan doesn’t use it that way; in lieu of a mournful last waltz, it’s mood music.

In the years after The Big Chill, a series of slyer, more satirically adept filmmakers reworked its aural strategies to more discombobulating effect. Where Kasdan had used Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song,” simply to fortify his hit parade, Joel Coen torqued the song’s circular narrative and melody into a kind of existential vortex, swallowing up the hapless characters of 1984’s neo-noir Blood Simple with each rotation. Even better, in Back to the Future (1985), Robert Zemeckis tackled the race question head on by having Michael J. Fox’s time-traveling teenage protagonist accidentally invent modern rock & roll, channeling Chuck Berry onstage at a high school dance before realizing the revelers aren’t ready for it yet. The boldness of this particular conceptual joke, with its intimations of cultural appropriation and racial erasure, is both the crowning jewel of Back to the Future and its most uncomfortable element, especially given how Zemeckis restaged it years later in Forrest Gump, where we learn that the title character’s childhood physical disability inspired Elvis Presley’s hip-swiveling on the Ed Sullivan Show, cutting out the African-American middleman entirely in order to shore up Forrest’s resume as his homeland’s most influential accidental cultural savant.

To paraphrase Kael, anybody who believes himself to have been a revolutionary or a deeply committed radical during his student-demonstration days in the late sixties is likely to find Forrest Gump and its slanderous depiction of the anti-war movement despicable—and maybe even evil, given how it couches a cynical, reductive view of history in sentimentality. If there is a worse sequence in contemporary American cinema than the one where Tom Hanks’s Forrest, a war hero resplendent in his Army uniform, is threatened at gunpoint by stone-faced members of the Black Panthers after punching out the lecherous, hypocritical envoy from Students for a Democratic Society macking on his hippie-chick girlfriend Jenny (Robin Wright)—well, I haven’t seen it. And did I mention that Forrest’s righteous attack on the Berkeley-bred leftist is synced to Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” in order to square the moment’s racial politics?

Even more than The Big Chill, Forrest Gump uses pop music as an all-purpose balm, but the cues are so relentlessly literal-minded that they skirt self-parody: “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” over images of girls with flowers in their hair; “Everybody’s Talkin’” behind a shot-for-shot reprise of Midnight Cowboy (1969), and so on. If The Big Chill tried to flatter its target audience by affirming (rather than examining) their slightly retro musical tastes, Forrest Gump’s soundtrack is like a reverse Ludovico technique from A Clockwork Orange (1971); instead of using brutal visuals in counterpoint to Beethoven to make the latter’s symphonies unpalatable, it effectively airbrushes and/or whitewashes the major talking points of twentieth-century history by reducing them to miniature episodes of Pop-Up video. The semiotic shorthand ranges from clever to appalling, with Forrest ultimately achieving prophet status by observing that “shit happens”— “bumper sticker wisdom,” as per Showgirls (1995), except that Zemeckis, whose direction suggests a former Steven Spielberg protege brainwashed into thinking he’s the real thing, appears to be aiming for profundity. But the message is as anodyne—and insidious—as the absolution encoded into Billy Joel’s 1989 hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire”: in a world where, to quote more bumper sticker wisdom, “life is like a box of chocolates,” the only thing to do is stand beside the inferno and make s’mores. 

The key song on Forrest Gump is probably Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” which scores childhood sweethearts Forrest and Jenny’s brief idyll after they return to where the skies are so blue—to the sprawling property in Greenbow where his sainted mother had run a boarding house all those years ago. That the Gump homestead was located in reality on a former plantation site surely accounts for the odd sensation in those early scenes of some larger racial animus being held at bay—or CGI’d away, like Lieutenant Dan’s legs—and, notwithstanding the ass-covering, jerry-rigged camaraderie between Forrest and Mykelti Williamson’s Bubba, Forrest Gump seems to echo the lyrics’ seductively Utopian view of the South. Not only does Watergate not bother Forrest (who obliviously calls-in the break-in from a payphone), but neither does his conscience. He lives instead in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind: the benefit of being conceived and portrayed as a holy fool. As (superbly) played by Hanks—the most ingratiating American actor of his generation—Forrest’s naive, servile decency serves simultaneously to embarrass liberal arrogance of all stripes and redeem redneck stereotypes; when poor, suggestible Jenny, whose noble-folkie ambitions are linked to childhood sexual abuse, expires of an unnamed disease—heavily hinted to be AIDS—the film has the gall to frame her death as collateral damage in a culture war that her husband is not only blessed to survive, but also comes out the other end a philanthropic big-tech profiteer. 

Joy to the world, in other words: and what else is there to say in the wake of its tale of sound and fury told by a useful idiot? It’s the triumphant anthem of a what-me-worry icon to rival Alfred E. Neuman: a high life flyer and a rainbow rider—a straight-shootin’-son-of-a-gun. 

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Adam Nayman

Adam Nayman is a critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; he writes for Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, and The New Yorker.