The films of John Hughes, who died yesterday, derived much of their power from their soundtracks. More than any other filmmaker - except, arguably, Quentin Tarantino - Hughes understood pop's function as an emotional shortcut: where the script was sometimes lacking, a song could fill in the gaps.
That’s particularly true of the ending of ‘Pretty In Pink’, when Andy and Blane cement their profoundly uninvolving love-affair with a kiss outside the prom. You’d be left unmoved - if it wasn’t for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s stately, heartstring-plucking ‘If You Leave’ playing over the top.
Music was absolutely crucial to Hughes’ creative process. ‘The Breakfast Club’ opens with a quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’. ‘Pretty In Pink’ was written around the Psychedelic Furs song - a flop single originally released five years earlier - not the other way around.
Indeed, it’s significant that the success of Hughes’ early films mirrored that of MTV. Both enterprises thrived by responding to teenagers’ desire to see their own lives reflected - even if that reflection was distorted, or weirdly sanitised.
Because to talk of Hughes’ movies as being about hormones and ‘teenage rebellion’ is to ignore the yawning dichotomy at the heart of his work. For example, Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club practically invented our modern idea of the high-school misfit - yet her transformation into a make-up wearing, jock-pleasing Barbie Doll in the closing moments is one of the most appalling cop-outs in film.
There’s something oddly conformist about Hughes’ obsessions: cars, clothes, finding a date for the prom. His films essentially overlay the cultural concerns of the 50s onto a modern landscape of video games and Billy Idol posters. Perhaps that’s why the films are so comforting. They are teen movies, but with the ugly bits of being a teenager - the irrationality, the wild mood swings - scrubbed out.
That’s also why they are so timelessly enjoyable. One of the weirder quirks of the cult of John Hughes is that he is hailed by musicians who weren’t even alive when his early films were made. Vampire Weekend’s video to ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ is an affectionate Hughes pastiche, while Fall Out Boy have referenced the director in songs such as ‘A Little Less Sixteen Candles…A Little More Touch Me’.
Then again, I wonder if it’s the timeless quality of being a teenager that makes his films so appealing, so much as the specific quality of being a teenager in 80s America, that thrilling cultural moment, perhaps the last time that onrushing modernity was something to be celebrated for its own sake, rather than something to be vaguely ashamed of, or fearful of, as it is now.
By way of tribute, here are some of the finest songs from John Hughes’ films.
Simple Minds, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’
Co-written by the disco producer behind Flashdance’s ‘What A Feeling’, this was a million miles from the flinty post-punk of Simple Minds’ early career. The song’s use on the end credits of ‘The Breakfast Club’ accelerated their ascent to U2-aping stadium-rock goliaths.
Kate Bush, ‘This Woman’s Work’
Written for the 1988 film, ‘She’s Having A Baby’ - a sign of the increasing power of Hughes’ films to attract big names. Artists knew they were guaranteed a hit if they contributed to one of his soundtracks.
Killing Joke, ‘Eighties’
Used on the ‘Weird Science’ soundtrack. Famously, Nirvana borrowed heavily from this riff with ‘Come As You Are’.
The Ramones, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’
From ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’, the knockabout family comedy from which so many Simpsons gags are lifted.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik, ‘Love Missile F1-11’
Produced by Giorgio Moroder, ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ made this digi-punk tale of nuclear paranoia (“US bombs cruising overhead”) an unlikely international hit.