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John Hughes: The soundtrack to a generation

A great teen movie needs a soundtrack. Youth is captured better in song than on film, and behind every brain, athlete, basket case, princess or a criminal is a score. John Hughes knew how to find it.

Teen angst doesn't belong to one generation more than any other. Isolation, awkwardness and a general distrust of authority are staples, whether kids are listening to the Beatles on vinyl, or Paramore on an iPhone.

But if the boomers had Woodstock, Generation X had John Hughes.

What was it like to grow up in the '80s? One can reference a string of political or cultural touchstones, or one can turn to Hughes for the quickest, easiest and shortest answer. It sounded, perhaps, something like Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me." 

Too often, soundtracks for mainstream films are little more than advertisements for record labels -- quick, name three songs from 1999's "American Pie." But Hughes was one to carefully sculpt mix tapes to accompany his pictures. Simple Minds may have had a following in the U.K. long before Hughes put them in "The Breakfast Club," but they were on the fringes of youth culture in America before the 1985 film was released. 

This is why the song worked. It didn't matter if one was a fan of Simple Minds' four and a half minutes of synth rock romanticism -- battle lines are drawn over music when one is a teen -- it captured a moment, and a movement. After the release of "The Breakfast Club," the song shot to the top of the charts, and to this day remains a symbol of teen films.

But "The Breakfast Club" wasn't where Hughes set the precedent for intertwining music into his films. Though not represented on the soundtrack, the music in "Sixteen Candles" captured a range of teenage emotions. Recklessness? The Specials' punk-spiked "Little Bitch." Gooey romantic anticipation? The Thompson Twins' "If You Were Here." Totally crazy this-is-the-end-of-the-world heartache? Spandau Ballet's "True."

One can argue, perhaps, that Hughes was in some part responsible for the proliferation of '80s synth rock. Yet it's the sound most closely associated with the era, and Hughes captured the sound at its most diverse. His films, for instance, could comfortably jump from the melodrama of the Smiths to the electro-fierceness of New Order.

Both are from the soundtrack to the Hughes-penned "Pretty in Pink," itself a quick overview of the sound of the '80s. No prom from 1986 to 1994 was worth attending if it didn't feature Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's "If You Leave," and the film shared a name with an European hit from Psychedelic Furs, above, which catapulted the band from the college crowd to one that was owned by the masses.

Hughes, however, didn't rely on the songs to supply the sentiment. He made sure his films captured a range of feelings, or simply a middle finger. He tapped Big Audio Dynamite's "B.A.D" and Yello's "Oh Yeah" for "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and they're cuts that typified '80s dance at their most silly. But hey, part of a being a teenager is championing music that causes your parents to cringe.

But Hughes didn't forget them either. In an '80s movie scene as memorable as a DeLorean going back in time or a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man stomping through New York, Hughes filmed Matthew Broderick's Ferris Bueller completely owning a parade down the streets of Chicago. This was pure high school fantasy, idealizing the notion of playing hooky, and articulating the belief that adulthood equals freedom.

All of it was little more than a teenage dream, of course, but Hughes took us there, and forever glued a song to the the emotion: The Beatles' take on "Twist & Shout," accompanied by a marching band. 

--Todd Martens

Comments () | Archives (12)

Great article - mirrors my own - Hughes' ability to capture those 10 years younger then him was as much the music as the actors.

What a talent he was...and what a loss...


RIP John Hughes. Your films revolutionized the concept of a "teen film." How you managed to capture the angst of our age group back then, even though you were older, I will never understand. But you did capture it, and eloquently, along with the best taste in music.

Listening to those songs now takes me back to my teenage years when John Hughes movies were the fabric of Gen X in the 80's. A far more simpler time, but when I watch the movies now with my own kids, it makes them even more special. Thanks Mr. Hughes for bringing laughter and joy to this Gen Xer and her kids. You were a genius well ahead of your time and my deepest condolences to your family, friends, colleagues and fans the world over.

The use of Love & Rockets' "Haunted When The Minutes Drag" in SHE'S HAVING A BABY is fantastic.

We just did a tribute podcast to the great tunes and moments from JOHN HUGHES movies. Listen here...


"I Go Crazy" by Flesh for Lulu, in "Some Kind of Wonderful"

"I Go Crazy" by Flesh for Lulu, in "Some Kind of Wonderful"

Watching The Breakfast Club in 1985 was the first time I saw myself in a movie. God bless him.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off, touring the Art Intstitute of Chicago accompanied by the Dream Academy's brilliant version of The Smiths' Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want. It is nothing less than a perfect moment on film.

OMG, I remember sobbing, sobbing, sobbing when Kate Bush's This Woman's Work played as Kevin Bacon's character face the possible death of his wife, child, or both in She's Having a Baby. Maybe it wasn't a great movie, but boy, it sure made a lot more sense when I started my own family!

1. Absolutely Vic: Nice call on the L&R in "She's Having a Baby." That movie is quite underrated, especially in terms of the music.

2. Nellie: Bless you for remembering Flesh For Lulu! Most won't remember a U.S. tour by FFL and the March Violets, who actually perform their song "Turn to the Sky" in "Some Kind of Wonderful." I went to one of the shows with some friends. Ah, long story. I won't bore you.

3. Katherine S: Wow, thanks for reminding me of that beautiful moment in "Ferris Bueller"! I need to pull out that Dream Academy cover now.

4. Ah, youth. The '80s were a glorious time. RIP, John Hughes. We'll always have Shermer.

Besides the March Violets' "Turn to the Sky," the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack also offered Pete Shelley's "She Loves Me" and Lick the Tins' cover of "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You," the latter of which was later used to great effect in Stephen Frears' The Snapper.


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