Sounding Board

Neon Nostalgia: The Pretty In Pink Soundtrack 30 Years Later

Ryan Leas | February 12, 2016 - 2:12 pm

You and I both know the story well by now. There’s a girl and there’s a boy. There are theoretical reasons they shouldn’t wind up together, but nevertheless a rapid-fire romance occurs, the sort that only ever happens in high school. Or, really, probably only ever happens in movies or TV shows about high school. It seems to go totally wrong for a minute, and then maybe she’s going to wind up with that other guy, but then there’s the big dramatic final scene where they proclaim their love for each other and kiss and, you know, live happily ever after. There are a lot of movies that follow an arc like that, movies that might skew toward either romance or comedy or coming-of-age or some combination of it all. And John Hughes’ 1986 film Pretty In Pink is one of the paradigmatic examples we have for it, as Molly Ringwald’s Andie falls for Andrew McCarthy’s rich kid Blane, and the best friend who’s loved her all along, Jon Cryer’s Duckie, has to let her go. (John Hughes didn’t actually direct this one, but it’s still totally a John Hughes film.) The movie turns 30 this month, and it’s getting a theatrical re-release this weekend with a bonus featurette on its alternate ending. For Valentine’s Day, of course.

As both an installment in Hughes’ string of iconic ’80s movies and one of the Brat Pack films, Pretty In Pink is one of the works that defines the decade in hindsight. And its soundtrack does, too, maintaining an iconic status on par with the film for which it was curated. This was often a hallmark of Hughes’ films. After he stopped directing in the early ’90s, he still wrote a bunch of movies, but his reputation will forever be built on the foundation of the teen/high school films he made through the mid-’80s, from Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club to Pretty In Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Packaged with that is Hughes’ reputation for accompanying his movies with great soundtracks, which really means that his beloved ’80s films had a handful of really inspired cues or setpieces, whether it’s Matthew Broderick singing “Twist And Shout” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” opening and closing The Breakfast Club. (This piece is about Pretty In Pink, but Simple Minds in The Breakfast Club is the icon to end all icons if we’re talking about music cues in Hughes’ films, and in ’80s movies in general, right? Right.) Mostly, he was known for his use of new wave and post-punk, stuff that is indie-godfather music now but wasn’t exactly as famous in America then as it might seem in hindsight if you weren’t there. What that really means is that he featured songs that became huge hits by bands we’d consider big names, but could also be half-remembered as one-hit wonders in the U.S.

With Pretty In Pink specifically, the music was hard-wired into the movie’s DNA. Its title comes from a 1981 Psychedelic Furs single from Talk Talk Talk; the band re-recorded a sax-driven version for the film, in which it’s an opening (and recurring) theme. (The film version was the bigger hit for the band, but the original is far superior.) Throughout, Molly Ringwald wears pink, and her character’s mother supposedly looked beautiful in it, too. The film rides on the song for its distinctive opening: “A John Hughes Production” reads in simple white text over a black background in silence, and then the opening snare hit of “Pretty In Pink” kicks into the opening imagery (which pans over to the “wrong side of the tracks” where Andie lives) before the title pops up. Beyond that, OMD wrote “If You Leave” specifically for it, and Echo & The Bunnymen did the same with “Bring On The Dancing Horses.” Hell, those are two of the best songs of the ’80s, so the soundtrack and film would be worth remembering for that alone, but — as it goes with Hughes, whether he actually directs the film or not — the music cues are some of the most famous ones out there.

These are the heavy hitters. “Pretty In Pink,” naturally. New Order’s “Thieves Like Us” plays during the pre-prom montage where Andie makes her dress, Duckie and Blane sit alone in their bedrooms, and the still very young and attractive James Spader smokes a cigarette in his tux. (Sidenote: Is it some kind of karmic retribution for Spader that after playing an ’80s villain like Pretty In Pink’s snotty, good-looking, rich brat Steff he’d be known to another generation as the human wreckage Robert California on The Office?) “Thieves Like Us” is one of three New Order songs used in the movie, alongside “Shellshock” and “Elegia,” but not the one that actually appears on the official soundtrack release despite coming in at a more crucial moment in the narrative. Outside of ’80s music, there’s Duckie’s impassioned pantomiming to Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” in the record store; which, because it’s 2016 and not 1986, I kept expecting to break into “Otis” from Watch The Throne despite myself. And “If You Leave” plays on and off for the last 10 minutes of the movie, over the course of the prom scenes. Which is good, because the lead/chorus synth line in “If You Leave” is one of the best sounds ever. It crests once more as Andie rushes after Blane into the dark-yet-glowing parking lot and kisses him in the movie’s final moments. It’s peak ’80s melodrama, soundtracked by a peak ’80s song.

There are other great songs with smaller roles to play. Considering that “Bring On The Dancing Horses” is one of Echo & The Bunnymen’s finest, and that it was written for the film, it plays a tiny background role, but an important one nevertheless — it’s playing in the record store when Blane comes by to talk to Andie again and try to ask her out, before Duckie turns on the alarm in the back room. The Smiths also get a few subtle nods. In that same sequence, when Young James Spader comes in with his cigarette to rush Blane out of the store, there’s a sign for the Smiths above the records in the foreground of the shot; when Andie comes back out, Smiths posters emblazon the door behind her. Later on, “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” is playing while Duckie sits despondent and lovelorn on his mattress on the ground. (His room, by the way, looks as if it could be an intentional echo of the cover for the Smiths’ single “William, It Was Really Nothing,” the B-side of which happens to be “Please.”) Later in 1986, Hughes would use the Dream Academy’s Muzak-y instrumental cover of the same song in the museum sequence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

At the same time as their music might soundtrack a memorable scene like that, however, the Smiths were far from a pop band in ’80s America. That was often a weird blur that occurred with some Hughes’ most famous music cues. These were alternative bands who might’ve had a few big radio singles here, but would not have been ruling the pop mainstream in any sort of consistent way. It’s true of “Pretty In Pink,” “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and “If You Leave” — three songs tailored or written for the Hughes movies they’re prominently featured in, and three successful singles (two of which, obviously, were major, major hits). There’s a double-edged element to it for the legacies of OMD and Simple Minds in particular: Hughes gave them their shot at their big MTV hits, but this didn’t necessarily lead droves of American listeners to realize that these were also two groundbreaking bands with long-reaching influence on synth-pop. In fact, Simple Minds tried to distance themselves from “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” on and off throughout the years, uneasy with being famous for a song they did not write themselves.

But that status of those songs based on their use in Hughes films goes a long way toward defining the influence of Hughes’ films and their soundtracks. Those of us who weren’t actually in high school when Pretty In Pink came out inherited it and its sibling films as foundational texts. Clearly, this is what high school was meant to look like, full of warring subcultures and one-dimensional bullies as antagonists and misunderstood friends as the protagonists. Cliques with firm borders that, upon first interaction, would let you know several times over that you don’t belong with them and they don’t belong with you. And amidst these harsh structures, there would be romance like the one between Andie and Blane. Obviously, these kinds of high school dramas come from some degree of reality. But even when they’re simple stories, they can have an enveloping sense of oversized grandeur, like these are the elemental experiences in any American teen’s life blown out to a glowing archetypal soundtracked by a handful of the best songs from the ’80s. They leave their impact on you, leave you with ideas about what life is supposed to look like. You want a real love. You know, like the whirlwind kind in sitcoms and John Hughes films.

Of course, you have to be consuming media in a certain way for it to influence your perception of real life in that manner. But is there anyone in America who was born since Hughes’ ’80s reign who isn’t impacted by a thoroughly mediated existence? For that matter, isn’t that true of anyone born in America since our pop culture flowered, as we know it, last century? You realize, naturally, that movies are not real life, and that dramatic prom sequences set to “If You Leave” don’t just click into place automatically, unless you’d rigged the system with a CD or iPod or whatever. For Pretty In Pink’s 90-minute running time, you’re caught up in these people’s lives in a way that makes every moment feel dramatic, because that’s the point of a movie like this. Sure, you’re watching banalities the same as the ones you’d live yourself: working at a record shop, helping a friend with homework, awkwardly talking to a crush. We hear “Pretty In Pink” and “If You Leave” as momentous signifiers because of the history we attach to them, because of how Hughes’ high-school films read as the basis for the experience we were supposed to have a generation later. Those were just the songs Andie and Duckie would’ve listened to, though, the same as our own banalities might’ve played out to “Hey Ya!” or “Paper Planes.” Nevertheless, looking through that sensual haze of ’80s film, it leaves you with these feeling like: Wait, when do these things start happening? Am I doing high school wrong if it doesn’t look like this and sound like this? For all the shorthand and stereotypes a movie like Pretty In Pink employs, there’s admirable reality to it sometimes. It would’ve been easy to have been Duckie in real life, the guy who didn’t get the girl. But that just feels shitty in real life. It still doesn’t feel as if you’re living through the totemic representations of a classic ’80s high school fable.

These movies can have a weird effect. For a generation raised on the internet’s display of decades’ worth of media, I’d argue that these become the foundational texts because they’re the last bits of media made before us, and before the world shifted drastically over the course of the ’90s and into the ’00s. They’re the last glimpse at something that we can perceive, in hindsight, as somehow purer, more innocent, simpler — which is a result of that ever-present threat to oversimplify an unlived past, but doesn’t feel totally untrue nevertheless. Bizarrely enough, there is something about Pretty In Pink and its ilk that can elicit a nostalgia for those teenage years. Even as someone who didn’t have a particularly hard time in high school, I still have no real interest in revisiting those years, and certainly don’t look back on them as if those were the days. Who does? But watching the prom scene with “If You Leave” still does something to my head. If you revisit this movie now, as an adult, it inevitably has you tumbling down pathways in your mind that you might not have wandered for a while. It makes you think about moments earlier in life, when you’d lived and seen less, so each experience weighed so much more than they do now. That’s where the innocence and the romanticization comes in. The thought of living inside that synth swell in “If You Leave,” or the outro to “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and feeling that this experience, at this moment: This is it. And then you wonder whether you can ever get back to that place.

But were you ever there at all? This goes back to that whole notion that a movie like Pretty In Pink presented a Platonic ideal of the American High School Experience, and if you hadn’t lived the same way, it felt like you hadn’t lived it. These movies can pull out falsified nostalgia: for a time you don’t miss, or for a misremembered idea of that time. Or, weirder still — I remember seeing The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink for the first time toward the end of my high school experience, and feeling nostalgia for high school then. Through that whole state of “I’m doing something wrong if my experience doesn’t seem shot through with this same meaning,” it can encourage nostalgia for experience while it’s in motion. Which, I’d argue, is how you wind up with received nostalgia — to be a person born after this particular Brat Pack version of the zeitgeist in the mid-’80s and to totally illogically miss something you never experienced in the first place.

This is a significant lasting impact of Hughes’ soundtracks — and, I’d argue, one of the ways in which you can really feel his fingerprints on certain strains of ’80s music. The best of the big new wave singles — the kind of stuff Hughes famously employed — winds up having this ineffable pang to it. I’ve long found it to be the perfect form of pop music because it feels world-weary and aged at the same time as it can feel youthful, or at least fascinated with some kind of youth or future. If you’re of a certain age, one of the lenses through which you inevitably process “Pretty In Pink” or “If You Leave” or “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is that first time you heard it outside of a reliably perfunctory radio play or something: the time you see it set to that elemental youth experience in a John Hughes movie. The works become intertwined in memory, and the effect can seep outward into like-minded music of the same era. New Order, the Smiths, whoever it is — these songs become little nostalgia machines. And because of the inherent melancholy of their sound and melodies, and the context we associate with them, that role is more extreme than any given pop song of another past decade. Or it’s more extreme because of that end-of-something position — that last era before us, that last moment before Andie and Duckie go away to college and begin adulthood running alongside that last moment before the world got a lot more interconnected, a lot blurrier. Whether it evokes a period of life left unlived but now gone, some fictionalized version that ran parallel to your own, or an era you just barely scraped yourself but have no empirical experience or memory of, that’s the weird power of revisiting something like Pretty In Pink and its soundtrack. It’s the sound of a point in life that is the thick of it all, but also an ending and a beginning. That’s the sound that’s so striking to me now, because it produces a feeling that might not ever go away, but certainly doesn’t by your mid 20s: the feeling that “being young” is already slipping out of your grasp, even while you’re still there.