An appreciation: John Hughes’ musical choices were some kind of wonderful

08.06.09 8 years ago 2 Comments

For anyone who was a teenager in the ’80s, there was that inevitable moment when you felt like John Hughes was the only one who understood you.

My colleague Drew McWeeny has already posted a moving appreciation to Hughes, who died unexpectedly today of a heart attack at 59. I want to talk about Hughes’ usage of music.  He was one of the first directors who used music in his movies that the teenage characters-and not just their parents– would have actually listened to. 

Let’s face it: coming-of-age angst never sounded as good as it did in a Hughes movie. (I’m only looking at the movies he directed, not those he wrote).  Who can forget Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from “The Breakfast Club.” Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff wrote it specifically for the movie and rarely had a song so fittingly captured the alienation and yearning inherent in being a teenager.

“The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles, ” and  “Pretty in Pink” all utilized music to voice what the characters were too emotionally conflicted to say themselves.  Not every song used was a winner-in fact, there are plenty of tunes used in Hughes’ movies that are completely forgettable-can anyone sing “Heart Too Hot to Hold”  by Jesse Johnson and Stephanie Spruill-but that’s not the point.

The hits were far greater than the misses. Take “Pretty in Pink.” The movie takes its name from the song by the Psychedelic Furs and both benefitted from the association.  Molly Ringwald’s character, Andie, works in a great, independent record store, which means Hughes could run amok with musical exploration as the music the characters pick in the store serve as exposition and insight into their personalities. The “richies” have their music, the new wave kids have theirs, Duckie (in Jonathan Cryer’s best role ever) practically has his own genre.

The soundtrack remains a near-perfect snapshot of the mid-80s and the film undoubtedly introduced tens of thousands of kids to the Smiths, whose “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” summed up every teenager’s wants and desires.

While Hughes’ musical usage was spot on for most of his movies, “Pretty in Pink” was definitely his finest hour, musically speaking.

I have to admit, I don’t remember the music in “Sixteen Candles,” and the soundtrack was apparently never released on CD. At least it had a soundtrack. A soundtrack for “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” never came out. Unlike “Pretty in Pink” which stuck pretty closely to ’80s British new wave leaning acts,  “Ferris Bueller” used music from all over the map, ranging from the Beatles’ “Twist & Shout” (which I’m betting was one of the first placements of a Beatles song in a movie-though that’s just a hunch) to Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schon” and Yello’s “Oh Yeah.” These weren’t casual choices. They each made the scene they inhabited better. There was no such thing as filler when it came to Hughes’ music usage. Each song had a role and a purpose to fill and in Hughes’ capable hands, they served that goal well.  

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