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John Hughes: The soundtrack to a generation

August 6, 2009 |  5:13 pm

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