December 1, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kevin Smokler's riveting and well-researched Brat Pack America explores the enduring appeal of '80s films.
Tell someone you’re working on a book about 80s teen movies and there’s even money they’ll will follow up with “You mean like The Breakfast Club?” At which point, there’s better than even money one of you will sing a refrain from Simple Minds’s “Don’t You Forget About Me,’ the movie’s theme and sonic stand in for writer/director John Hughes’s entire body of work and the generation who saw this 90-minute story of five high schoolers in Saturday detention as The Iceman Cometh of Reagan Era.
Which all makes sense and why wouldn’t you? I wrote a book about 80s teen movies because I have great love for these very movies and their place of honor in my own growing up. Prompt me and I’d break into a verse of “Don’t You Forget About Me” at a state funeral.
But in writing Brat Pack America I had something different in mind than a rapturous nostalgia trip. I wanted to look at not only what we already loved about The Breakfast Club and Heathers and House Party but also what we might have missed, their wonders that hid in plain sight, that testified even further to their greatness.
Soundtracks are rich pickings for those hidden gifts. So for my Book Notes playlist I made an 8–song EP from 80s teen movies you might not know even if you probably do know the movies they came from.
1. “We Are Not Alone” – Karla Devito. The Breakfast Club
The song underling the movie’s dance montage where each member of the soon-to-be-named Breakfast Club bear their souls via the boogie (remember Ally Sheedy’s all-limb shake that ends with a collapse on the floor?) New wave keyboard leads with a jagged female vocal resemble Kim Wilde wearing a torn army jacket. Lyrically, about not being afraid of intimacy, a more direct take on the message of the movie than “Don’t You Forget About Me, ” about the unknown of a new relationship aka what might happen when they all get back to school on Monday.
The “library” in The Breakfast Club was actually the school’s gymnasium. The actors changed clothes in nearby locker rooms.
2. “Miss Amanda Jones” – The March Violets. Some Kind of Wonderful
Unfairly minimized as “Pretty in Pink with the right ending”, Some Kind of Wonderful was a leap forward for John Hughes’s writing of female characters. The “Amanda Jones” in question parallels the Blaine character in Pink but here is a working class kid who knows her beauty has nabbed her a rich boyfriend and feels lousy about it. The sensitivity that Hughes writes and Leah Thompson plays this moral conflict turns a bouncy brit-pop cover of a classic rock hit (a favorite trick of Hughes’s. The original by the Rolling Stones shows up in the movie too) into a lot more than just a character’s theme song. Told in third person but sung collectively by women, it’s the sound representation of Amanda Jones understanding of herself as an object of desire and her agency in overcoming it.
John Hughes had a thing for the Rolling Stones and named the three principal characters in Some Kind of Wonderful—Keith, Watts, and Amanda Jones--after Rolling Stones band members and tunes.
3. “Invincible” – Pat Benatar. Legend of Billie Jean
The Legend of Billie Jean was a notorious flop in the summer of 1985 with blame often thrown at “Invincible”, a top ten hit the filmmakers had play about 85 times during the film. Since both soundtracks and a young MTV were becoming an important force in teen cinema, critics laughed off Billie Jean as a 100-minute music video trying and failing to be a movie too.
To borrow its most famous line, “Fair is Fair!” The dystopian tale of kids-running-from-the-law-across-a-heartless-desert-landscape, Billie Jean feels not like “Love is a Battlefield: The Movie” but a younger sibling to 70s cult classics like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane-Blacktop. And although “Invincible” is the most straightforward 80s pop number Pat Benatar ever did (I’ve got it on a weightlifting playlist next to “Eye of the Tiger.” It works), its erratic drum fills and melody that resembles night failing say “menace” and “unease” rather than raise your fist in salute. The Legend of Billie Jean, which (spoiler-not-spoiler) ends in disappointment and hard lessons not triumph, says that too.
Helen Slater and Christian Slater play brother and sister in this movie but are not actually related.
4. “Ain’t My Type of Hype,” Full Force. House Party
Actors on the soundtrack of their own movies are nothing special (see “She’s Like the Wind” sung by a Dirty Dancer named Swayze) unless those actors play the movie’s villains. Exhibit A-1: House Party, the zenith of the first generation of hip-hop movies, which began with 1983’s Wild Style. Starring Kid and Play as two high school best friends trying to throw a great party with the hip-hop/funk production team of Full Force playing the school bullies trying to spoil it.
Full Force’s “Ain’t My Type of Hype” is the last dance number on the soundtrack and the one that renders it impossible to sit still the rest of the movie. Backing vocals as percussion, a sample of Cheryl Lynn’s disco classic “Got to Be Real” inevitable instead of reheated, stabbing snare drums trading off with rhymes hopscotching on and off the beat. My hands are leaving the keyboard now to go blow something up.
House Party is a movie that contains (almost) three sets of brothers. Written and directed by siblings Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, The trio of Full Force are real-life brothers too. And Kid and Play grew up together, are still best friends and talk as though they are blood.
5. “Fantastic Freaks at the Dixie” -- Fantastic Freaks, Wild Style
Nas called Wild Style “The Bible of Hip Hop” and opened his debut album Illmatic with a sample from the movie he named “Genesis.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has honored Wild Style as a pioneer of hip-hop cinema. Later generations of hip-hop artist have sampled from its soundtrack only a little less than from the discography of James Brown.
Consider “Fantastic Freaks at the Dixie”, a live track of five emcees rhyming almost completely in unison (which you almost never here anymore) over the baseline of laid down by DJing forefather Grand Wizard Theodore. Vocally dense, beat sparse, “Fantastic Freaks” has been sampled in over 170 songs. You’ll recognize the opening shouts of “C’mon! Louder!” from the chorus of Public Enemy’s “Louder Than a Bomb.“
Trivia: “The Dixie” in question was a large club on Freeman St in the South Bronx where future Rock n Roll Hall of Famer Grandmaster Flash threw parties.
6. “When the Shit Hits the Fan” – Circle Jerks, Suburbia
The tight knot of LA Punk movies—Repo Man, Suburbia and the first Decline of Western Civilization documentary—get too little credit as “80s teen movies” but are as vivid a portrait of youth culture in the city of Police Chief Daryl Gates and the 1984 Olympics as The Karate Kid or Valley Girl. And this less-than-two-minutes of fury at recession and economic discrimination nails it. Like with a nail gun to the forehead. Pay extra close attention to the opening and closing 5 seconds of this brief, sparse track, which begins with drums that sound like an army landing at Normandy and concludes with a sneaky surf bass resembling a footnote. Or a wink.
Suburbia contained only two professional actors. The rest were kids already in the community including a young Mike Balzary, aka Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
7. “Let’s Have a Party” – Wanda Jackson. Dead Poets Society
I’m not even sure Dead Poets Society had an official soundtrack as 90% of its music is instrumental score. But its few uses of song act as the more obvious reminders that Dead Poets, like many 80s teen movies, took place in the pre-Beatles late 50s-early 60s—Stand By Me, Dirty Dancing, Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married.
“We’re Gonna Have a Party” was a 1960 hit by “First Lady of Roackabilly” Wanda Jackson and shows up in the movie when two of the dead poets build a transistor radio to tune in pop songs from the wider world that aren’t allowed in over the forbidding walls of Welton Academy boys school.
It’s not a stretch to see Robin William’s encouragement of the Dead Poets to “seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary” as a metaphor the coming of the 1960s. The use of the Wanda Jackson song, with a swagger burned by cigarettes clearly influenced Emmylou Harris influenced Janis Joplin and shows that the 60s was already here.
At one time, Bill Murray was considered for role of teacher John Keating that ultimately went to Robin Williams.
8. “Cry to Me” Solomon Burke. Dirty Dancing
The song playing when Baby Houseman propositions Johnny Castle with “Dance with Me?” Somehow tender and achingly sexy at once or maybe that’s just soul music at its finest. I only got to know Solomon Burke very recently via the closing scenes of season 3 of The Wire and therefore hear him as the voice of sadness and human reckoning. Here he feels like the sweat above your eyes, the heat rolling off the shoulders of a summer night and the desire hanging in the room as Baby and Johnny circle each other then dance.
Though they don’t get to do much in the way of dancing, Baby’s Houseman’s parents were played by Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop both Tony-award-winning Broadway dancers.
Kevin Smokler and Brat Pack America links:
DVD Talk interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Practical Classics
Salon interview with the author
Take Two interview with the author
WAMC interview with the author
WFPL interview with the author
WGN interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists