Secrets of the "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" soundtrack: "Oh my God, this song is about Cameron"

Salon talks to the producers of the official soundtrack that fans have waited 30 years to hear

Published September 13, 2016 9:05PM (EDT)

Mia Sara, Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"   (Paramount Pictures)
Mia Sara, Matthew Broderick and Alan Ruck in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (Paramount Pictures)

"Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," which celebrated its 30th birthday in June, has long been the most popular movie without a soundtrack from a decade crawling with them — whether baked into a film’s plot ("The Blues Brothers," "Footloose," "Dirty Dancing"), tangential to it ("Back to the Future") or bolted on to grab a piece of MTV’s action ("Top Gun").

John Hughes, the writer and director of "Ferris," was an obsessive music fan who cemented the legacies of several artists by building film scenes around their songs. Try to imagine "The Breakfast Club" without Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)"  or the kiss at the end of "Pretty in Pink" set to something other than OMD’s “If You Leave.”And he even had his own record label run by Tarquin Gotch, who had earlier worked with Hughes as music supervisor on "Ferris."

Music in Hughes’s universe worked both as filmmaker’s trademark and glimpse into his passions. Perhaps matched only by the contemporaneous movies of Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe, soundtracks in the work of John Hughes feel like mixtapes the director made special for you.

Why then did Hughes fill his biggest hit as a director with several now-legendary musical moments — Yello’s “Oh Yeah” as the audio cue for a certain Ferrari, The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” for a certain parade — only to beg off on releasing them collectively as a soundtrack? For years, the story went that Hughes couldn’t imagine his teenage audience being interested in a soundtrack that had both British New Wave and “Danke Schoen,” made famous in 1961 by Wayne Newton, and couldn’t see how the songs would hang together as an album.

But now, we know there’s an equally compelling argument put forth by Gotch that the rights to “Twist and Shout” were available only for the movie, not a soundtrack release, and who could imagine a "Ferris Bueller" soundtrack without the song the title character sings to an adoring crowd?

How we know this is the most delicious irony of all: It’s in the liner notes of the now-released "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" soundtrack, available this week after three decades from La-La Land Records, a 14-year-old label based in Burbank that specializes in film and television soundtracks.

We spoke to the album’s co-producers Dan Goldwasser and Neil S. Bulk about collecting the sounds and songs of the beloved teen classic in one place after so many years, the power of film music in situations dramatic and common and Principal Ed Rooney’s favorite track on the album.

How did you two become involved with the project?

Dan Goldwasser: Back in 2009, I set up some meetings between La-La Land and Paramount, the studio that released "Ferris." Prior to that, studios like Sony and 20th Century Fox had been opening up their back catalogs of movies for archival soundtrack releases, but Paramount wasn’t quite on board yet. For lack of a better phrase, the vault was closed.

It was around 2013 when we revisited the project with Paramount. There was no conscious decision to skip the 25th anniversary of the movie in 2011 but to tackle an A-plus “premium” title like "Ferris," we would have had to start working on it much earlier.

We‘d always had a wish list of titles we wanted to get rereleased. "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" was always at the top of that list. We knew it would be a monumental task because the number of different songs from different musical eras that would have to be cleared. And the risk with a soundtrack is that it contains a premium song, a huge hit everyone knows like “Twist and Shout,” which will subsequently raise the price of getting the rights to everything else on the soundtrack and pretty soon you’re not in budget anymore.

The business of soundtracks dominated by songs instead of instrumental scores really began with "American Graffiti" in the early 1970s and Martin Scorsese’s movies where he liked to use a lot of pop music. Record labels soon caught on to the idea that there was money to be made in soundtracks. Which is great because that’s our business but it also makes what you can get and what you can afford to include on a soundtrack a big part of what we do.

What made it onto the "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" soundtrack?  

Neil S. Bulk: La-La Land likes to include as much music on their releases as possible. Our goal with Ferris was the same. 

Goldwasser: We took a kitchen sink approach: Try to put everything in the film on the album. That meant Ira Newborn’s score — which was easy, Paramount owned that already — but also as many other songs as we could license. In the end we got nearly everything in the movie except “Twist and Shout,” “March of the Swivelheads” and “Taking the Day Off.” The rights holders respectfully declined our request, sadly.

However this is the first time the version of “Beat City” [that's the song by The Flowerpot Men playing over the montage of Ferris, Sloane and Cameron driving into Chicago] you hear in the movie has been released. We had a version of it from the 7-inch vinyl single John Hughes himself released to his mailing list back in the '80s that we borrowed from his family for reference. We were also able to get Ben Watkins and Adam Peters who wrote the song to personally supervise its mixing and remastering for this project using the original studio vault elements. 

Who or what went into deciding it was time for "Ferris" to get a proper soundtrack release?

Goldwasser: Obviously it’s nice to tie in a release with the 30th anniversary for promotion. But there’s such a huge fan base for "Ferris" and 30 years worth of people clamoring for a soundtrack that fans would be happy [to have] regardless of when it came out.

But given the era we’re living in, hasn’t the movie’s soundtrack, or pretty much all of it, been reconstructed on thousands of Spotify and YouTube playlists already?

Bulk: Sure, but this is nearly everything in the movie in one place, including liner notes featuring new interviews with music supervisor Tarquin Gotch, John Hughes' son James, editor Paul Hirsch and composer Ira Newborn. It has the CD debut of “Beat City” and “I'm Afraid,” vocal and instrumental, as well as Newborn's score, including music written for but not used in the film. Those two songs were both re-mixed especially for this release and are artist approved.

The album not only allows you to relive the movie sonically, but for collectors, a critical mass of our audience, it's about holding something in your hands you couldn’t for 30 years because it didn’t exist. And for a collector, our soundtrack has nearly all the music you’d hear watching "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," not just whatever versions you happen to find in videos on YouTube.

Another theory of mine related to this is about soundtrack albums in general. The music soundtrack is the only part of a movie you can strip out of it and enjoy on its own. You can’t strip out the editing. You can buy a costume, but it’s just a thing sitting on a mannequin. But the soundtrack exists by itself.

We put a lot of thought into sequencing and flow but we know that, in the age we live in, fans, particularly younger ones, were just going to buy the album, rip it to iTunes and create their own playlist anyway. But we still sequenced the project as songs, score, bonus tracks, so you could listen straight through if you want, but still focus on the type of music that interested you most.

What formats will the soundtrack be available in?

Goldwasser: Right now, we’re releasing it as CD. Digital and streaming rights are an entirely different set of negotiations our timeline and budget didn’t allow for. We’re exploring a vinyl release too.

How would you describe the soundtrack to someone who has never seen the movie? 

Goldwasser: I’d tell them to go see the movie.

Neil S. Bulk: A musical journey in the mid-'80s and leave it at that.

What’s your favorite track?

Bulk: I’m going to cheat and have two. One is song and one is score. The song: “I’m Afraid.” Which is playing as an instrumental during Ferris’ monologue after Cameron freaks out. In the film it has no vocal. Our release has both versions, with and without vocals. When you can hear the vocals, you say, “Oh my God this song is about Cameron,” a kid who is always afraid, who hides under the table when the doorbell rings.

My other favorite is a piece of score called “Ferris on Line 2.” It’s the sound of a horror movie score that everybody recognizes as such and shows the power of film music. It’s terrifying even though in the movie it only refers to a blinking “Hold” light on a telephone.

Goldwasser: My favorite song is The Dream Academy instrumental “Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” which is playing when the friends visit the art museum. When I was a kid, I assumed it was part of the score. But it’s actually an instrumental version of a Smiths song. It sounds amazing, beautiful, introspective. In that scene, we see Ferris and Sloane together and Cameron alone starring at the "Sunday Afternoon" painting by Seurat.

Bulk: It's first time we realize that this is Cameron’s movie, that he will be the character that changes.

Goldwasser: My favorite part of the score is called “Rooney on Patrol.” It’s the cop-on-the-beat music playing when Principal Rooney flips up his sunglasses to go looking for Ferris, and really similar to the jazzy soundtrack Ira Newborn did for "Police Squad!" in 1982. Rooney thinks he’s the shit and the music plays on his delusion: What school principal leaves work in the middle of the day to chase down a kid cutting class?

If Ferris Bueller made the soundtrack for this movie, what would be on it?

Dan Goldwasser: This has to be it. "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" is the most fantasy-like of all of John Hughes’s teen movies. I’m not saying the movie is Ferris’ fantasy, but he is our narrator for it.

Neil S. Bulk: The music in the film is the soundtrack that Ferris would score the film with. The idea of a movie is that it's the most important event in a person’s life. Therefore, this is the best music that Ferris would use to score his most important day off. It can't get any better than this. John Hughes says something similar on his commentary track. Who am I to argue with that assessment? 

What is Ferris’ favorite track? Sloane's? Cameron’s?

Dan Goldwasser: Ferris’ is “Danke Schoen” because he sings it twice. I think it’s his favorite song — he wasn’t singing “Twist and Shout” in the shower at the beginning of the movie.

Sloane’s is “Edge of Forever,” by the Dream Academy. That’s the music playing when we last see her character and she says, “He’s going to marry me.” The reality is they probably don’t. But Sloan can imagine her future in a way Cameron and Ferris can’t. The music is the optimism of that moment.

I think Cameron really likes the fake recording of the Coughlin Brothers Mortuary they use to fool Principal Rooney. Amidst all the character’s moroseness, Cameron has a sick sense of humor.

Tell me an unmade soundtrack you’d like to bring back to life?

Bulk: I’ve always wanted to do a collection of the instrumental, music from "The Brady Bunch." I know you can find "Brady Bunch" songs like “Sunshine Day” on records. But I’m talking about the underscore playing when Marcia’s walking home smitten with the dentist.

Goldwasser: Giorgio Moroder’s score for "Scarface." That movie had a soundtrack but his score has never been released. 

What are you guys working on now?

Bulk: I’m producing a [three]-CD set of music from the Lynda Carter "Wonder Woman" television series. Dan is the art director on that collection.

Goldwasser: Independently, I’m working on a series of digital singles with Fox for songs from "Family Guy."

You guys usually work together?

Goldwasser: More often than not.

Bulk: We have our own projects. Dan also does art direction and I don’t. It’s like an old married couple — Ferris and Cameron kinda stuff.

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.

MORE FROM Kevin Smokler

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1980s Ferris Bueller's Day Off Film John Hughes Movies Music Soundtrack