Ferris Bueller's missing soundtrack: Why we shouldn't mourn what we never had

It seems odd to us now that John Hughes would refuse to release "Ferris Bueller" music, but it makes sense

Published June 11, 2016 7:30AM (EDT)

Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"   (Paramount Pictures)
Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (Paramount Pictures)

UPDATE: Danke Schoen! "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is finally getting an official film soundtrack

“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” 30 years-old today, still feels like a movie without dark corners and hidden rooms. Its title recites its concept word for word — rare, even for broad comedies, and a pattern writer/director John Hughes avoided in his other teen movies, which were usually named after songs (“Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Some Kind of Wonderful”). “The Breakfast Club,” made the year before “Ferris,” leaves open the question of will happen to the characters on Monday. “Ferris” neatly shuts that speculative door with the main character (Matthew Broderick) literally telling us in the last scene that the movie’s over. “Ferris” is the only one of John Hughes’s movies with a director’s commentary and hilarious discourse on the film being “secretly terrifying” notwithstanding, the movie’s initial review from late Roger Ebert seems to have held up: “One of the most innocent movies in a long time.”

And yet any memory of Ferris Bueller, Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) and Sloan Peterson (Mia Sara) ditching class at their suburban high school to spend an early summer day in downtown Chicago contains an omission by design, a page intentionally left blank. For a movie that feels like it has no secrets and nothing unexplained, "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" actually has a missing piece lying in plain sight.

"Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," released in the middle years of a decade dominated by movie soundtracks, had none. Oh, it had songs chosen by the filmmakers to enhance key scenes, and any casual fan could probably name a few of those — “Twist and Shout,” “Dankeschoen,” Barry White repeating “Oh Yeah” while Max Headroom answers with “Chica chick-ha…” But if a “soundtrack” is a film’s music assembled, sequenced, packaged and sold, that never happened. Anything you find on eBay calling itself a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” soundtrack is an imposter.

“[Record label] A&M was very angry with me over that; They begged me to put one out,” Hughes told Lollipop magazine in a 1999 interview. “But I thought…’would kids want Dankeschoen” and 'Oh Yeah,' on the same record?” Instead, the director put together a 7-inch vinyl pressing of two song — “Beat City” by the Flowerpot Man, which plays when the friends first drive the Ferrari into Chicago, and “I’m Afraid” by Blue Room, on the radio when Cameron falls into the swimming pool — then spent nearly two years mailing the record himself to the nearly 100,000 fans on his mailing list. These records are just about impossible to find on eBay.

The absence of a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” soundtrack hasn’t stopped fans or from recreating their own on personal websites, annotations on services like TuneFind and What-Song, or as playlists on streaming music services. These lists of the movie’s songs (with one exception, all available on iTunes) show that a “Ferris” soundtrack wouldn’t have been all that different from the soundtracks to Hughes’s other movies: About 80 percent cuts by lesser-known British New Wave artists, with one or two covers of songs from an earlier generation by contemporary acts (see: The March Violets' version of the Rolling Stones’ “Miss Amanda Jones” on the “Some Kind of Wonderful” soundtrack).

But Hughes was in a position to say no. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” came at the height of his power — the third of three successful movies he wrote and directed in less than a year’s time. "Ferris" would be the last movie Hughes (whom NPR called, upon his death in 2009, the “Auteur of Adolescent Angst”) would direct featuring teenage protagonists (“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “Uncle Buck,” starring adults and kids, would follow before Hughes stopped directing in 1991) but came right in the midst of his run of successful teen movie soundtracks. “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack, released the year before, had peaked at No. 17, with its theme song “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds hitting No. 1. The winters of 1986 and 1987, bookending Ferris’s arrival in theaters, saw the arrival of soundtracks for the Hughes-scripted “Pretty in Pink” (voted one of the 25 greatest soundtracks of all time by Rolling Stone in 2013) and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (released on Hughes’s own record label as part of a lucrative production deal).

A lifelong music fan, John Hughes lavished as much attention on song choices as he did on screenwriting and cinematography and made the careers of bands like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Simple Minds by including their work in his movies. He also did so at a time when such attention paid well: Movie soundtracks accounted for eight of the Top 100 best-selling albums of 1986. Ten of the Top 100 albums of the 1980s were soundtracks, compared to six in the 1990s, and only one in the 2000s. For his other hit soundtracks, Hughes simply left out the older songs — remember Duckie’s dance/serenade to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” in “Pretty in Pink?” — but somehow, he didn’t see how he could do the same with “Twist and Shout.”

New fans found it anyway. Thanks to perhaps the most famous parade sequence in movie history, “Ferris” brought “Twist and Shout” back into Top 40 21 years after the Beatles first charted with it. The movie also turned “Oh Yeah” by Yello (the theme song for Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari) into audio metaphor for hedonism (see: Duffman's entrance music on “The Simpsons”).

These are byproducts of the movie’s three-decade hot streak. "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" made $70 million on a $6 million budget and was a Top 10 Box Office movie of 1986. Its narrator’s last name (repeated slowly) is one of the most serviceable jokes in modern cinema.  At a 2010 Academy Award night remembrance of Hughes, Matthew Broderick said, “Thanks to him, nearly every day for the last 25 years, someone taps me on the shoulder and says ‘Hey Ferris. Is this your day off?'” In 2014, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” was selected to the Library of Congresses National Film Registry. This summer, the movie will be re-released in theaters nationwide.

What then of Hughes’s choice to forego a soundtrack? Perhaps that kind of clout was only possible when “soundtracks” meant cassettes and CDs and physical media was how record labels made their nut. Back then maybe you could feel like a soundtrack for a John Hughes movie felt like a mix tape John Hughes had made special for you. Now the music business has shifted from selling product to licensing songs, with a rise in the influence of music supervisors who chose songs for movies and television.

In the first decade and a half of the 21st century, music supervision has blossomed into a sometimes pricey, above-the-line consideration for navigating a new media ecosystem," reported The Journal of Popular Music Studies in June 2013. "In an ever-increasing multichannel universe, gaining the ear of a well-placed music supervisor is not simply important; it is a key tactic to any marketing strategy aiming to break new music.”

That means we still get some great soundtracks (“Dope” and “Love and Mercy” from last year, to name two) but probably have more than one creative professional to thank for them. Conversely, a lousy movie soundtrack now resembles Baseball’s All-Star Game, crammed with maximum stars per square inch (whether or not they get much playing time), for an era defined by the infinite playlist. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" (2014) boasted a soundtrack “curated” by Lorde that had only one song (hers) actually in the movie. I’m sure the intention was a mixtape made by Lorde special for you. And yet Lorde’s connection to "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" seems begin and end with her being about the same age and gender as the movie’s protagonist.

The 30th birthday of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” rides in on a nostalgic wave of 25th and 30th birthday celebrations for '80s movie favorites, including “Pretty in Pink” this past February, “The Goonies” last year and "Stand By Me” later this summer. And yet “Ferris” is different in one crucial way: The movie has never not been popular. It wasn’t a box office failure rediscovered later like “Heathers” or “The Lost Boys.” Its lead actor didn’t fade from view only to come roaring back, like the stars of “Sixteen Candles” or “Back to the Future.” It’s not permanently yoked to the mores of the Reagan era, like “Risky Business.” Which means we can be nostalgic for when we first saw "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" or for parts of it that remind of the early summer of 1986, but not for the movie itself. If nostalgia equals missing something that is gone, "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" never went away.

Hopefully, then, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”' non-soundtrack can remind us that love for and possession of pop culture treasures are different things, even as we continually mix them up. We want our favorite movies, books and music of the past to stay exactly the same, while simultaneously generating more and better knock-offs in the present. God forbid anyone remake “Ghostbusters” with an all-female cast. But the haters of the new “Ghostbusters” are all too happy to buy “Ghostbusters” barware made last Tuesday by factories in Bangladesh. What, is that barware an unshakeable memory from your childhood, too?

John Hughes didn’t think we’d want a "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" soundtrack, so we don’t have one. We can recreate, playlist or bootleg it, but we can’t possess something that never existed. Here's the open secret of this movie and its soundtrack-that-never-was, three decades later: Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t waste time on something you never had, you won’t miss it.

By Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler is the author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies." He's a writer and documentary filmmaker based in San Francisco. He's currently working on a book of conversations with women filmmakers.

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