The power of music in John Hughes films: “When you hear those songs, you see those moments”

IIt was clear how important music was to John Hughes’ cinematic vision of teenage life when The Breakfast Club, his high school detention drama, was released in 1985. As the film closed with its five principals – “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal ” – after reaching a mutual understanding, Simple Mind’s Jim Kerr’s voice called out: “Won’t you come and see about me?”

The writers of Don’t You (Forget About Me), Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff, tried to emulate the rhythm of Our Lips Are Sealed, by the Go-Go’s, and the song was inspired by a conversation in the film between Anthony Michael Hall (“Brain”) and Judd Nelson (“criminal”). “When they were away from everyone else, the two of them actually recognized each other,” Forsey says now. “It reminded me of when I was at school. If you were in the school playground, the bad guys would be pretty mean to you, but if you met them at the bus stop in the morning, there was a certain connection there. That’s why I came up with Don ‘t You (Forget About Me). It was: don’t forget, when we’re back in the classroom, you’re not just a bad guy and we have other things in common.”

Director John Hughes with the cast of The Breakfast Club, 1985.
Director John Hughes with the cast of The Breakfast Club, 1985. Photo: Everett Collection/Rex Features

The song became the symbol of The Breakfast Club, and a powerful one at that. The film took in nearly $100 million at the box office ($241 million, adjusted for inflation), against a $1 million budget, and the song became Simple Mind’s first worldwide hit, reaching No. 1 in the United States.

The music was central to Hughes’ films – usually the kind of British alternative rock that gave a hint of sophistication beyond the usual Hollywood fare. In 1986, five years after its initial release, the Psychedelic Furs’ Pretty in Pink became a hit after recording the film of the same name; Kate Bush wrote This Woman’s Work specifically for She’s Having a Baby (although she was only approached because This Mortal Coil said no).

Hughes “was very good at creating moments with music, so that when you hear those songs, you see those moments,” says musician and filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey, whose band, Summer Camp, not only sampled Hughes’ films, but wrote songs about they too. She cites the moment Don’t You (Forget About Me) recorded a freeze-frame of Judd Nelson hitting the air at the end of The Breakfast Club. “I didn’t love all the songs he used, but I loved listening to them after watching the movies, because then you could relive those moments in your head when you’re in the car and going somewhere you don’t want to go, pretending you’re in in a music video.”

John Hughes on the set of Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
John Hughes on the set of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Image: (awaiting credit)

Now, each of those moments can be relived with a new box set, Life Moves Pretty Fast, which compiles dozens of the songs Hughes used on the seven films he directed between 1984 and 1989, from Sixteen Candles to Uncle Buck — though his name is the closest . associated with a series of high school dramas he wrote, and often directed and/or produced as well: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful. (There’s also the grown-up kind of sequel, She’s Having a Baby.) After that run, it was comedies all the way, and Hughes returned almost entirely to writing. He directed Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Uncle Buck and Curly Sue, but left the Home Alone trilogy to other directors.

Before Hughes, Hollywood was awash with movies aimed at teenagers, and the musical accompaniment was often the result of whimsical-eyed commercial calculations rather than carefully thought-out characters. The result would be films packed with specially written singles – Flashdance, Footloose, Top Gun – which could then be compiled into hit albums. “There were nostalgia films, where the music was set to date,” says Tarquin Gotch, Hughes’ music supervisor in the ’80s who worked on the box. “Or it was commercial exploitation. John was looking for emotion. He wanted the music to tell the teenagers what they were feeling. And he got it right. He made the music pop and he made the scenes better.”

“John was looking for emotion”: Tarquin Gotch and John Candy on the set of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Image: (awaiting credit)

It was an exhausting process. One of Hughes’ most beloved films, Pretty in Pink—written by Hughes but directed by Howard Deutch—originally ended with a ball scene where protagonist Andie (Molly Ringwald) finds romance with her BFF Duckie (Jon Cryer) to the soundtrack of Goddess of Love by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, a mission from Hughes. Except audiences hated that ending in test screenings, so it was rewritten with Andie instead of falling into the arms of Blaine (Andrew McCarthy).

“Andy [McCluskey] and I had spent a couple of months writing Goddess of Love, and we flew over to Los Angeles ready to mix it, two days before a big US tour started,” says OMD’s Paul Humphreys. “We got to the hotel and there was a message from John. He said, ‘Listen guys, I’m really sorry, but the song you’ve written doesn’t work anymore, because I’ve replayed the whole end of the movie. Can you write a new one ?

“The only thing he told us was, ‘Make the lyrics relevant to the end, and it has to be 120 beats per minute.’

Andy McCluskey from OMD.
Andy McCluskey from Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. Photo: Ilpo Musto/Rex Features

In 24 hours, Humphreys and McCluskey came up with If You Leave. When they went to the premiere, they saw another big difference in the way Hughes liked to use music: this wasn’t a 20-second snippet drowned in dialogue, but the full, unexhausted song. “We were shocked,” says Humphreys. “It was the most incredible exposure.” Almost 40 years later, If You Leave is OMD’s most streamed song.

But even the simple act of matching an old song to a scene was hard work, Gotch recalls. “We’d go to John’s house in LA and go all night trying endless things. John would say, ‘Let’s try some oompah music here!’ He would just try things to see if they made it more fun.”

Hughes had been a music-crazy kid, so carrying that over to the movies was natural. “It was the first thing he hit as a teenager,” says his son, John Hughes Jr. What was particularly constant was his love of British music – the box is packed with British alternative acts, from New Order and the Smiths at one end of the fame-and-success scale to Gene Love’s Jezebel at the other.

“Now we get into John’s psychology,” Gotch says. “John grew up with three sisters. They moved around a lot, because his dad was a salesman, and he didn’t have many close male friends. But at the time, having imported music and alternative music in high school gave him a credibility that the jocks didn’t have . So that was very much his mark. And it stayed throughout his life.”

That sense of outsiderness gave Hughes’ films a universality that some of the musicians who contributed songs to the soundtrack wouldn’t have achieved on their own—jazz revivalists Carmel, goth arrangers Flesh for Lulu and Balaam and the Angel, conceptual pranksters Sigue Sigue Sputnik . Dream Academy’s Nick Laird-Clowes – whose work was featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles – remembers being clearly snuffed out on some of his films.

The punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik, whose single Love Missile F1-11 is featured in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
The punk band Sigue Sigue Sputnik, whose single Love Missile F1-11 is featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Photo: PYMCA/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

“They were ’50s movies, weren’t they?” he says, laughing. “They were a parody, and that was his genre. But The Breakfast Club was on the second week, and I stayed up and watched it and thought, ‘This is an incredible movie!'” I was amazed that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is so well thought out and people became obsessed with it. But I think it kept the band alive.”

“He had this incredible way of tapping into a teenage mentality,” says Sankey. “He was quite unusual in that a lot of his protagonists were women, or it was similar in terms of the strength of the characters. And to sum up those emotional moments with song choices that aren’t incredibly deep cuts—that’s how you are as a teenager.”

Crucially, she says, his teenage films have central characters just approaching adulthood – precisely at the point in life where music can have such a decisive effect on identity. “You can always remember where you were, what you were interested in, what you bought. That’s when you first start to form and have a choice about your identity. And you’re flooded with hormones and everything is so intensely attached to those things you surround yourself with. You can feel very isolated, but when you watch the John Hughes movies, you think, “There’s definitely something there that I can relate to.”

Life Moves Pretty Fast: The John Hughes Mixtapes is out now via Demon Music.

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