Link to "That's Life": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnlPtaPxXfc
One of the most uplifting and spirit-filling songs I have had the pleasure of enjoying is Frank Sinatra's cover of "That's Life" by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon. During the fall of 2017, my first year at USC as a sophomore transfer student, I developed a great love for Frank Sinatra's music. His songs ranged from those about loss and reflection to those depicting hope, love and triumph. "That's Life" has always been special to me because it speaks to how we phase out of one and into the other. While Frank Sinatra did not pen the lyrics to "That's Life", he comes across as an honest voice of the lyrics. His life was one of great peaks and valleys, and by the time he covered "That's Life", he reportedly had attempted suicide due to his declining musical career in the 1950s, but then arose once again in the late '50s and early '60s, with classic tunes like "Come Fly With Me" and "The Best is Yet to Come". These ups and downs of his life make "That's Life" especially meaningful coming from him.
I was pleasantly surprised on an October evening in fall of 2019 when I saw the film Joker and "That's Life" was featured heavily in the film. Joker depicts the painful journey of a man who comes to embrace the image of an unsuccessful, mocked, loathed, and ridiculous clown. More than embrace the image, he turned it on its head and made the image a symbol of the struggle for all who feel confined to the role of an outsider. "That's Life" seemed a great fit for a film about reaching the lowest of lows and finding one's way back up. The song's lyrics seem on first glance to almost perfectly reflect the Joker's struggle:
"Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race".
However, Joker is not merely an uplifting tale of never letting the world get you down. It is also one of class resentment, vengeance through violence, and the coming together of a pseudo-anarchist movement (that is, if the final sequence is not a dream). After reflecting on the movie and the song for some time, I now find the movie's use of the song to be a perversion of something that was much more beautiful.
The lyrics to "That's Life" are apolitical. The song is about an individual struggle: a struggle everyone can relate to. This is the power of the song's message. We have all experienced abrupt changes in life for better or worse, and the song validates all of these experiences as part of the process of life. One day, it seems that nothing can go wrong, but the next day yields only pain and sorrow. None of this is to minimize the unfortunate moments and periods in life. They are as real as anything, but this song offers a hopeful and productive path beyond unfortunate times.
The portrayal of the song in Joker interprets the meaning as one of nihilism and rejection of the world as it is, and I find this to be a misguided understanding of the song. The pivotal lines in the song that compel me to make this argument are the following two:
"But I don't let it, let it get me down,
'Cause this fine old world it keeps spinning around"
The song doesn't condemn the world for containing sadness or misery. Much to the contrary, the message of the song is that one can only expect the world's turning to deliver a chaotic and unpredictable mix of triumph, frustration, and pain. If taken literally, the last line of the song can lead one to believe that the struggle can be futile:
"But if there's nothin' shakin' come this here July,
I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die, my, my"
However, I find these lines to be more of a mockery of childish whining than credit to the fatalism of giving up on life. In my view, the fetal image of the final line delivers the message that expecting life to always proceed in one's favor is immature. One must live with the understanding both that life will at times seem to try drag you down, but also that, as the song says, it shouldn't get you down
"'Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin' around".