The power of music in John Hughes films: ‘When you hear those songs you see those moments’

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

The writers of Don’t You (Forget About Me), Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff, were trying 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 everybody else, the two of them actually recognised each other,” Forsey says now. “It reminded me of when I was going to school. If you were in the school playground, the bad guys would be pretty bad to you, but if you met them at the bus stop in the morning, there was some bonding there. That was the reason 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’ve got other things in common.”

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

Related: Simple Minds: how we made Don't You (Forget About Me)

Music was central throughout Hughes’s 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 soundtracking 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 making moments with music, so that when you hear those songs you see those moments”, says the musician and film-maker Elizabeth Sankey, whose band, Summer Camp, not only sampled Hughes’s films, but wrote songs about them, too. She cites the moment when Don’t You (Forget About Me) soundtracked a freeze-frame of Judd Nelson punching 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 films, because you could then relive those moments in your head when you were sitting in the car going somewhere you didn’t want to go, pretending you’re in a music video.”

Now each of those moments can be relived with a new box set, Life Moves Pretty Fast, compiling dozens of the songs Hughes used on the seven films he directed between 1984 and 1989, from Sixteen Candles to Uncle Buck – although his name is most closely associated with a string of high-school dramas he wrote, and often directed and/or produced, too: The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful. (There’s also the grownup kind-of follow-on, She’s Having a Baby.) After that run, it was comedies all the way, and Hughes returned almost entirely to writing. He did direct 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 teens, and the musical accompaniment was often the result of gimlet-eyed commercial calculation rather than carefully thought-about character. The result would be films packed with specially written singles – Flashdance, Footloose, Top Gun – which could then be compiled into hit soundtrack albums. “There were nostalgia films, where the music was set to the date,” says Tarquin Gotch, Hughes’s music supervisor in the 80s who worked on the box set. “Or there 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.”

It was an exhausting process. One of Hughes’s best-loved films, Pretty in Pink – written by Hughes but directed by Howard Deutch – originally finished with a prom scene where the protagonist Andie (Molly Ringwald) found romance with her BFF Duckie (Jon Cryer) to the soundtrack of Goddess of Love by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a commission from Hughes. Except that audiences hated that ending at test screenings, so it was rewritten with Andie instead 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 major American tour kicked off,” 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 any more, because I’ve reshot the whole end of the film. 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 a minute.”

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 was no 20-second snippet drowned out by dialogue, but the full, unexpurgated song. “We were shocked,” Humphreys says. “It was the most incredible exposure.” Nearly 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, endlessly trying things. John would say: ‘Let’s try some oompah music in here!’ He would just try things to see if they made it funnier.”

Hughes had been a music-mad kid, so carrying it on to the films was natural. “It was the first thing he connected with as a teenager,” says his son, John Hughes Jr. What was especially constant was his love of British music – the box set is packed with British alternative acts, from New Order and the Smiths at one end of the fame-and-success scale to Gene Loves Jezebel at the other.

“Now we get into the psychology of John,” 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 male close friends. But in those days, having import music and alternative music in high school gave him a credibility that the jocks didn’t have. So it very much was his badge. And that stayed throughout his life.”

That sense of being an outsider gave Hughes’s films a universality that some of the musicians who gave songs to the soundtracks wouldn’t have achieved on their own – jazz revivalists Carmel, goth also-rans Flesh for Lulu and Balaam and the Angel, conceptual pranksters Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Nick Laird-Clowes of the Dream Academy – whose work featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles – recalls being distinctly sniffy about some of his films.

“They were 50s movies, weren’t they?” he says, laughing. “They were a spoof of a spoof, and that was his genre. But The Breakfast Club was on the other week, and I stayed up and watched it and thought: ‘This is an incredible film!’ I was amazed that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is so well thought of, and that people got 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 female, or it was equal in terms of the strength of the characters. And to sum up those emotional moments with song choices that aren’t incredible deep cuts – that’s what you’re like as a teenager.”

It’s crucial, she says, that his teen movies feature central characters just approaching adulthood – at just the point in life where music can have such a defining effect on identity. “You can always remember where you were, what you were into, what you were buying. It’s when you’re first starting to shape and have a choice about your identity. And you’re flooded with hormones and everything is attached so intensely to the things you are surrounding yourself with. You can feel really isolated, but when you watch the John Hughes films, 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.