As the iconic high-school detention movie celebrates its 30th anniversary we look at the secret of its enduring appeal and the memorable soundtrack song by Simple Minds.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I first watched this film, however seeing as it would have been the mid-80’s I was almost certainly around about the same age as the five lead characters and maybe that’s why it has stuck with me.
But no, it must be more than that. This film hasn’t just stuck with me but with my whole generation and subsequent generations thereafter. 30 years after it was released this film still creates a buzz and has become one of the most iconic and beloved movies of the modern cinematic era. That’s no small boast, and when you consider that 1985 was a pretty good year for iconic teen movies (Back To The Future, The Goonies, and Weird Science among them) it’s a mark of the effect this particular film had that it almost certainly stands at the top of the pile.
The fact is that this is no less than the greatest high school movie ever made, and one of the greatest 80’s movies too. It’s certainly the peak of director John Hughes’ achievements, even more than the thoroughly charming Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the festive perennial Home Alone. It’s a film that manages to be both of it’s time and timeless, something most 80’s movies failed to achieve.
Why is this? Why did The Breakfast Club achieve iconic status when similar films such as Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink didn’t? John Hughes spent much of the 80’s trying to make the perfect teen movie, and came pretty close a few times, yet in this film it’s as if all the stars were in perfect alignment. The right cast with the right script at the right time. The so-called ‘Brat Pack’ of which the lead actors all belonged to or were affiliated with would never find such a perfect vehicle for their collective talents again.
In many ways it’s the perfect synthesis of the five lead characters that gives the film it’s magic. Claire Standish “a princess” (Molly Ringwald), Andrew Clarke “an athlete” (Emilio Estevez), Brian Johnson “a brain” (Anthony Michael Hall), Allison Reynolds “a basket case” (Ally Sheedy), and John Bender “a criminal” (Judd Nelson) all represent, in broad strokes admittedly, the kind of different social groups you could find in any high school either then or now. We could all identify with at least one character even if we weren’t really any of them, and the way the film deals with social politics at a time in peoples lives when they are maybe more pronounced than ever is skillfully done, and manages to avoid reducing any of the characters to lazy stereotypes.
And it’s this ability to relate to the characters and the pressures each of them feels in their respective roles that is the film’s main strength. Being in your mid-teens is a time when we are all searching for an identity and we tend to find it in and amongst the peer groups we drift in to. And yet this social pressure can often be too much to bear. When Andrew talks guiltily about how “I taped Larry Lester’s buns together” or Claire reveals after much prodding and pushing from the others that she’s still a virgin the film deals with the kind of pressure to conform to type that school kids through the ages have felt and still feel. Even Bender, with his wisecracks and displays of rebellion is only really doing what’s expected of him, what he has learnt to do in order to be somebody, to be part of the crowd whilst standing apart from the crowd.
Teen films can often be mawkish or cliche-ridden when they strain for pathos, but with The Breakfast Club the emotional push and pull is just about right. Sure, a couple of times the dramatic thrust of a scene is slightly over-played but as soon as this happens, like when Brian breaks down and tells the story of the elephant lamp and the flare gun going off in his locker, the film saves itself from descending in to schmaltz by quickly moving on (Brian’s line “the fucking elephant was destroyed” saves this particular moment). In truth the script is almost perfectly weighted between comedy and drama, and the relatively young and inexperienced cast create rounded believable characters that we can connect to and empathise with.
This being an MVD review it would be remiss of me not to mention the soundtrack. Honestly speaking it isn’t as good in this respect as other Hughes films (the aforementioned Ferris Bueller and Pretty In Pink both fare better) but it’s saved from synth-pop mediocrity by the film’s signature song, which also happens to be one of the most readily identifiable soundtrack songs in movie history. “Don’t You Forget About Me” will always and forever be indelibly associated with The Breakfast Club, and even though Simple Minds would later try and distance themselves from it, it remains one of their biggest hits. It’s quite simply a perfectly crafted slice of pop music and like the film it belongs to the 80’s but also transcends it through the sheer strength of it’s writing and performance (although it’s not actually a Simple Minds original, which is maybe why they weren’t so fond of it). It’s vibrant, pulsating, and catches the mood of the film in a way that movie soundtracks rarely do.
30 years old huh? It wears it’s age well. What makes a great film? Sometimes it’s because it perfectly crystalizes a cinematic genre, or takes profound ideas relating to what it is to be human and finds an accessible way to present them. Other times it’s because it manages to entertain and delight in a way that doesn’t suffer from repeated viewings. The Breakfast Club does all of these things.
There are very good reasons we are still talking about this film three decades later and will in all likely-hood still be talking about it in three decades to come. I’m not going to finish by pretending this is one of the great cinematic masterworks on a par with Citizen Kane or The Godfather – it clearly isn’t – but instead I’ll say that this film does what so many films wish they could do but can’t: it sticks around in people’s lives. They carry it with them and cherish it because it is part of their identity and tells them something about themselves. As much as anything else it has heart, and we all need a bit of that in our lives.