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March 8, 2011

Book Notes - Susannah Gora ("You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Susannah Gora's You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation is both an oral history of the seminal American teen films of the '80s (focusing mostly on the works of John Hughes), as well as an exploration of our continued fascination with these movies.

Gora's research is exhaustive and her cultural analysis impressive.

PopMatters wrote of the book:

"What remains is a series of tight essays on, for my money, the right batch of movies: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, and, the surprise of the bunch, Say Anything. Interspersed throughout these movie-specific chapters are more general essays on topics such as John Hughes' upbringing, the role of music in these films, and the impact of the infamous New York magazine article that coined the term "Brat Pack". The result is a work that’s part cultural analysis, part trivia, and whole bunch walk down memory lane."

In her own words, here is Susannah Gora's Book Notes music playlist for her book, You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation:

I've spent the past few years immersed in the films, music, and pop culture of the 1980s while working on my book You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation. Through my interviews with key players from the era like Molly Ringwald, Cameron Crowe, Matthew Broderick, Judd Nelson, John Cusack, Rob Lowe, Joel Schumacher, Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy, my book tells the complete history behind the making of seminal '80s youth films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, St. Elmo's Fire, and Say Anything, while exploring the movies' lasting cultural impact.

I saw my first John Hughes film—The Breakfast Club—when I was thirteen years old, and was immediately entranced by its ability to take teens and their problems seriously while also providing a hopeful, even exuberant, outlook on the possibilities of adolescence. From there, I discovered the other entries in the '80s youth-movie canon—among them, Hughes classics like Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Joel Schumacher's St. Elmo's Fire and Cameron Crowe's Say Anything. Later, when I went away to college in the '90s, I met kids from all over the world who loved the great '80s teen films as much as I did—but more importantly, I realized that we often used the films of our youth as a prism through which to discuss the important issues in our lives. It was then that I first had the idea to one day write a book examining the movies and their impact.

As a film journalist, it was very exciting to report on an important and under-recognized chapter in American movie history. And as someone who, decades ago, had the poster for The Breakfast Club hanging on her bedroom wall growing up, it was a deeply meaningful experience to get to meet my childhood heroes, and hear their stories about working in an era that turned out to be the golden age of teen cinema. Through my interviews with the actors and filmmakers behind these movies, along with sociologists, film critics, and other cultural historians, it became crystal clear that these movies weren't just "totally awesome" '80s memories—they were important pop-cultural contributions that changed the way many people, Gen Xers in particular, look at everything from love and friendship to class distinction and sexuality, and—very significantly—music.

These were movies about teenagers—music is an integral part of the teenage experience, and the directors of these 1980s youth films were smart enough to create soundtracks that would go on, in many cases, to play almost as important a role in the lives of young audiences as the films themselves. (So essential is music to the story behind these films that I include an entire chapter on the movies' soundtracks in my book.) The '80s youth films were made by a new generation of filmmakers who happened to have a very deep artistic connection to music. John Hughes was a major musichead who listened to music while writing his scripts in a room filled with "thousands of records," as Anthony Michael Hall told me. Hughes and his muse Molly Ringwald shared a special connection over music: "He would make me these mix tapes," Ringwald told me, "and I would make him mixes. It was really sweet, and kind of... teenage!" Hughes created onscreen worlds where it was a given that middle-class, Midwestern, suburban teens would be intimately familiar with completely esoteric New Wave songs recorded an ocean away. Earlier youth film directors tried to capture what kids were listening to—Hughes changed what they were listening to.

Hughes would often assemble the soundtrack for a film before he would even begin writing its script—a practice also used by Cameron Crowe, who had been a legendary rock journalist before becoming a filmmaker. The music informed and inspired the screenwriting, because, as Crowe told me, "I would start with a song that had, kind of, the promise of a feeling, and try and match it with the movie."

The "Brat Pack" movies were drama-filled and angst-ridden to begin with, but when coupled with the music of the soundtracks, the emotional effect was doubly powerful. Think of moments like Judd Nelson raising his fist defiantly at the end of The Breakfast Club to the insistent chords of Don't You Forget About Me, or that kiss above the birthday cake at the end of Sixteen Candles, with The Thompson Twins' If You Were Here swelling as Molly Ringwald leans into the boy of her dreams, or Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) with his boombox blaring Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes straight through his love's bedroom window and into her confused heart. Would these moments have half their meaning to our generation without the music that swept us up in them? "The songs influence people's abiding love for these movies," Some Kind of Wonderful star Mary Stuart Masterson told me. "It is like instant recall— by hearing the song, you remember the movie."

In other words, The Breakfast Club soundtrack showcased Simple Minds' Don't You Forget About Me, and each time we hear that song, we couldn't possibly forget.

The You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried Playlist:

"Pretty In Pink," The Psychedelic Furs

The original 1981 version inspired Hughes, and was a personal favorite of Ringwald. The Furs re-recorded the song (with a lusher, fuller sound) for the 1986 movie of the same name.

"Don't You Forget About Me," Simple Minds

Written for the soundtrack of The Breakfast Club, the anthemic song's title was originally "Won't You Forget About Me?" but was changed to the more hopeful and insistent "Don't You Forget About Me" when songwriter Keith Forsey learned that Ringwald's and Judd Nelson's characters end up together at the end of the movie. The song went on to become Simple Minds' biggest hit.

"If You Were Here," The Thompson Twins

A prime example of New Wave music at its most hauntingly beautiful. Its surprising placement in a tenderly romantic scene at the end of Sixteen Candles, an otherwise wacky comedy, makes the song—and the scene—even more powerful.

"St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)," John Parr

All the over-the-top exuberance and optimism of 1980s top 40 pop music, encapsulated in one undeniably awesome, inspiring song. The film St. Elmo's Fire told the story of a group of young Georgetown grads (played by the actors who would become known as The Brat Pack) struggling to find their way in life, and the song of the same name reflected that. But the main inspiration for the song was actually the heroic journey of real-life paraplegic Rick Hansen, who, at the time, was riding his wheelchair around the world to raise funds and awareness for spinal injury research. (It was called the Man in Motion tour.) British musician John Parr, who co-wrote and sang the song, told me about a telegram he received from Hansen at the time: "It said, 'Whenever I can't wheel another mile, I play the song, and then go out and do another twenty miles.'And to me, that means more than having a number one hit."

"Twist And Shout," The Beatles

It's almost hard to remember a time when we didn't think of The Beatles' cover of "Twist and Shout" as the song from the now-legendary parade sequence in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. "It was really joyful," Matthew Broderick told me of shooting that scene, "and you didn't have to pretend to be joyful. It was a real parade; people were happy."

"In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel

It was an honor and a pleasure to speak with Cameron Crowe—he told me the amazing story behind how he was able to convince Peter Gabriel to let him use this song in his film Say Anything. The result is one of the most iconic scenes in modern movie history. Though the song was a hit in 1986, it's now become synonymous with the 1989 movie.

"1985," Bowling For Soup

This catchy, clever and playful song about a woman frozen in the past features the lyric: "She loves all the classics/ She knows every line/ Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink/ Even St. Elmo's Fire." It's a humorous song, but it also represents that so many of us still relate deeply to these films.

"Graveyard Girl," M83

I interviewed various artists whom have been impacted by the great '80s youth films. One was the French musician Anthony Gonzalez, of the critically-acclaimed band M83. (Rolling Stone called his album Saturdays Equal Youth "songs for John Hughes movies yet to be filmed.") Even though Gonzalez grew up in the South of France, movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club had a profound affect on him. His peppy, synthy song "Graveyard Girl" features the line "She dreams of a sister like Molly Ringwald." Gonzales told me that when he first watched these movies, "It was like a new world opening its gates."

"True," Spandau Ballet

One of the rare instances in which John Hughes featured a song in one of his movies after it had already become a hit. This dreamy ballad can be heard in Sixteen Candles, in a scene that poignantly captures the bittersweet emotions of adolescence: Molly Ringwald watching her crush as he sways in the arms of his beautiful, popular girlfriend at the high school dance.

"Sometime Around Midnight," The Airborne Toxic Event

I first heard this song on the radio in 2008, while driving around L.A. during one of my many trips to the West Coast to interview actors and filmmakers for the book. Those were busy, heady days for me, and they now make for some very special memories. When I first heard this song on KCRW, it was a balmy spring afternoon, and I'd just finished an interview that had been very important to me. I was so taken with "Sometime Around Midnight" that I actually pulled the car over so that I could write down the lyrics. I downloaded it as soon as I got back to my hotel room. I think the reason this song got to me the way it did had something to do with the fact that I was writing about the powerful hold that the movies and music of our youth can have over us throughout our lives—and this song made me feel that same swell of excitement from music that I felt so often as a teenager.

Susannah Gora and You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation links:

the author's website
the book's website

Associated Press review
Bookgasm review
Everyday I Write the Book review
Innocent Words review
Leonard Maltin's Dream Diary review
Moviepie review
Paste review
The Pioneer Woman review
PopMatters review
The Spiel review
Toronto Star review
Winnipeg Free Press review

Boston Globe profile of the author
Huffington Post articles by the author
Moviefone Blog guest post by the author ("10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brat Pack")
St. Petersburg Times interview with the author
Time interview with the author
USA Today profile of the author
WAMC interview with the author
Washington Post essay by the author (on where The Breakfast Club actors are now)
WBEZinterview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author
WGN interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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