In our Teen Movie Rewind series we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.
There is always something that gives one a buzz when the Universal Pictures logo appears and the opening bars of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by Simple Minds kicks in on the soundtrack. It’s somewhat hard to describe, but it almost feels like an entire era of teen movies summed up in one song, or the feeling it encapsulated captured in a sound.
The Breakfast Club is one of the defining films of its genre and era, and yet it’s managed to transcend any possible issues with finding repeat audiences beyond its 80s teenage crowd by constantly being paid tribute to by a plethora of latter-day teen movies and television shows and having one hell of a high concept that is so simple in its idea and yet deceptively complex in what it sets out to achieve.
The cycle of films that were written, produced and directed by Hughes (in some cases also working alongside Howard Deutch) was not only a rite-of-passage for the teen audience of the era who lapped them up and repeat rented them on the burgeoning VHS market (oh, how I miss the era of the video store) but became a constant presence in the lives of teens growing up in the 90s, 00s, the 10s and now possibly beyond.
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My first viewing of The Breakfast Club came from accidentally taping it off television because I had been recording a late-night repeat of The X-Files from BBC 1, in the days when there were some solid gold movies shown on the British broadcaster, sometimes at some godforsaken time of night, but which was a great way to discover some of the best mainstream movies that might have been considered niche for a primetime slot.
I had first learned of its existence through it being referenced in ‘Detention’, one of the very best first season episodes of Dawson’s Creek, which paid tribute to the movie by having its lead characters stuck in Saturday detention. Growing up in Northern Ireland, the whole concept of Saturday detention was as strange, original and frightening as any detention-related punishment imaginable, and I really hoped that the teachers and principal at the school I attended never learned of such a thing.
Five kids, each for different reasons, find themselves sequestered to the library on a Saturday detention. They are vastly different from each other, come from differing home lives, each has differing standings in terms of the school popularity hierarchy and yet they find common ground emotionally.
The cast being made up of Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall and Judd Nelson meant that the Annie Leibovitz-photographed poster became one of the most iconic of the era, the five of them staring out to us in that pink-hued background in a manner that has been spoofed and paid tribute to by countless others, including, bizarrely, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
Many elements of Hughes’ films have come in for much-deserved scrutiny in the modern era, and rightfully so. The treatment of Ringwald’s character Claire by Bender (Judd Nelson), and the suggestion of a possible moment of sexual assault on her when Nelson’s character is hiding under her table, gives one pause for concern, while Sixteen Candles has a whole plethora of issues of its own, in regards to consent and the depiction of Asian character Long Duk Dong.
Diversity is another factor that cannot help but come up as a problem. It’s hard to escape the fact that the entire cast of The Breakfast Club is white, even the principal and the janitor. It’s one of those things we can’t change however; Hollywood was myopic when it came to casting, especially in a film like this, and while the problem is there and cannot be changed now that the film exists, it’s hard not to be aware of it in a day and age when racial equality is something that our stories and filmmakers are striving towards more.
One could even write a whole piece on how the more interesting characteristics of Ally Sheedy’s character Allison are suppressed and erased simply to let her capture the eye of Andrew (Estevez); a similar fate that befell Annie Potts’ character in Pretty in Pink.
What remains so enduring about the film is how Hughes swings an emotional pendulum with his script. We can argue about the elements of his film that are problematic, but one of the things that remain so brilliant about his writing (and he was a brilliant writer, churning out his scripts at such a fast rate that 1985 saw the release of both The Breakfast Club and Weird Science), is how his films can swing from very comedic to hitting at darker emotional beats.
You couldn’t move through many 80s movies without seeing Paul Gleason playing a figure of authority who was a bit of an idiot (c.f. Die Hard), but his behaviour and attitude towards Bender start to venture into abuse territory by the second half of the film (as dark as it is, at least the film is saying this is not good, unlike Bender possibly touching up Claire while hiding under the table).
Figures of authority are always there to be poked fun at in Hughes’ works, and while it’s not hard to imagine Vernon and Rooney from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off bonding and becoming best friends over their stories about the behaviour of their wayward students, Rooney is always there to be made fun of and laugh at during Ferris Bueller, while Vernon’s bitterness feels as if it’s something that could become more dangerous and threatening beyond this one Saturday.
This may only be the one Saturday, but the world and characters are so rich with dimensions that the viewer can fully imagine a whole separate series of stories with each character before the events of the movie and after, and while we may never see life before or after this particular detention, its freeze-frame final image has become one for the ages, being paid tribute to in future teen movie classic Easy A, and becoming one of the most iconic moments of 80s cinema and the teen movie genre.
Then there’s ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ by Simple Minds playing on the soundtrack. The band may have tried to distance themselves from the song not long after, but they weren’t the only ones; many bands who sang movie theme songs from the decade found themselves doing the same, and if you think of any band of the era, chances are an 80s movie they sang the theme song for, or whose work was used prominently in one, will be the first that comes to mind.
That combination of Bender, fist raised in the air, and the song playing over it, is one of those perfect movie moments, something that is both artificial in a manner that can only come from the silver screen, but so powerfully joyous that you cannot help but be so glad it exists. It might have issues that give one pause for thought in 2020, but unlike Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club still feels like not only a great 80s teen film, but one that deserves to be regarded as one the very best films of the decade.