Reviews

Ferris Bueller's Day Off: Bueller Bueller Edition (1986)

John G. Nettles

Call us the Breakfast Club Generation. We are all Molly Ringwald.


Ferris Bueller's Day Off: Bueller Bueller Edition

Director: John Hughes
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara, Alan Ruck, Jennifer Grey, Jeffrey Jones
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 1986
US DVD Release Date: 2006-01-10
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There is a moment in every adolescent's life when he or she comes to the startling realization that the previous generation is utterly fucked in the head. It's an epiphany that impels the young adult to start looking outside the confines of the family unit in search of greater wisdom.

My moment of clarity occurred about 20 years ago or so, when I was in the car with my mother listening to our local hits-of-the-'60s radio station (which regularly touted itself as "your feel-good music station" and then play "House of the Rising Sun" or "Paint It Black"). The DJ announced "more hits for the Big Chill Generation!" I was stunned: did people of my parents' ilk actually call themselves that? Were they really so unaware as to identify with Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 paean to whiny Yuppie self-absorption, when the title of the film was so plainly an allusion to the slow consumptive death of '60s idealism? I looked over at my mom, bopping away to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and decided I didn't want to know.

Kids of the '80s like myself, disaffected and convinced of the sheer uselessness of our parents, had our own spokesman at the multiplex: John Hughes, the wunderkind writer and/or director of Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985), and Pretty in Pink (1986). Hughes, a former writer for National Lampoon, rode high on the mid-Reagan-era zeitgeist with funny movies about teenage tragedy, striking a chord with angst-ridden suburban white kids with no real problems. In Hughes' painfully attractive characters, whose primary difficulties were rooted in a lack of attention from the people who raised them, we found gobs of validation. Call us the Breakfast Club Generation. We are all Molly Ringwald.

In the summer of 1986, however, Hughes kicked out a flick that turned his earlier films on their collective ear -- Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the story of a charming teen wiseass, his girlfriend, and his dyspeptic best pal, as they play hooky and explore the wilds of downtown Chicago. Here parental cluelessness is a boon. The eponymous hero (Matthew Broderick) and Sloane (Mia Sara) have nary a trace of adolescent angst, and together they work to purge Cameron (Alan Ruck) of his inner demons through the power of joyous abandon. In other words, Hughes did a movie about getting over it, and it's by far his best film.

One gorgeous spring morning, Ferris decides it's too nice a day for school and sets out to fake an illness (with a crafty performance and an elaborate Rube Goldberg contraption to get around the 'rents), pull Cameron out of his usual hypochondriac sickbed, borrow Cameron's dad's vintage convertible, and spring Sloane from school. Once liberated, the kids head into the city, where they crash a four-star restaurant, take in a Cubs game, go to the top of the Sears Tower, and explore the Field Museum: this film is a love letter to Chicago. Meanwhile, back at school, news of Ferris' life-threatening illness has reached the student body, sparking a fundraising campaign, complete with "Save Ferris" t-shirts. As the always good Edie McClurg chirps, "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, dickheads: they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude."

Only two people are not fooled by Ferris's ruse: Ferris' sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey, before Dirty Dancing and her unfortunate nose job), who lives in a constant state of inchoate rage over Ferris' ability to get away with murder, and Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones), the school principal, who views Ferris' truancy as a personal challenge to his fiefdom and sets out on a disastrous day-long manhunt, a secondary arc that is often much funnier than the main story. Kristy Swanson and Charlie Sheen also appear briefly, along with the monotonic turn as an economics teacher that made Ben Stein, for better or worse, a star.

The film holds up after 20 years, primarily due to Broderick's Broadway-honed comic timing and considerable charisma (according to the film's casting directors, their other pick for Ferris was John Cusack, who would have underplayed the role). Good thing, too, because frankly, as written, Ferris is actually something of a jerk. Though ostensibly his day out is an attempt to get Cameron to shed some of his rampant neuroses, Ferris Bueller is ultimately all about Ferris Bueller, from his self-aggrandizing asides to the camera to the film's show piece, where Ferris commandeers a parade float and lip-syncs "Danke Schoen" and "Twist and Shout" to a captive, partying audience while Cameron and Sloane watch from the curb. These are great scenes, to be sure, but they undercut Cameron's story, until after a while one wonders what Cameron's doing there at all besides serving as Ferris's stooge.

It's also a tad bothersome that Hughes' cast is so Caucasian. Granted, the kids are from an upper-middle-class suburb, but in downtown Chicago the only nonwhite faces to be seen belong to parking attendants, bathroom attendants, and a choreographed line of dancers during the parade scene, apparently there to give Ferris some street cred, and none of them have speaking parts. Hughes knows his audience, but a little color would have been nice, if only for the sake of verisimilitude.

Still, of Hughes' teen comedies -- he also dreamed up the National Lampoon's Vacation and Home Alone franchises -- Ferris Bueller's Day Off is probably the most seamless and certainly the least painful. And the twentieth-anniversary DVD is also notable for including behind-the-scenes features that are actually enjoyable to watch. Rather than the usual tired interviews with cast and crew, the people involved with Ferris are lively and interesting talking about the film, so obviously both a labor of love and a career-maker for many of them.

Ruck in particular has many thanks for Hughes and Emilio Estevez, who turned down the role of Cameron. McClurg and Grey reminisce fondly about their preparation for their roles, unusually invested in a pair of secondary roles two decades old. Jones appears as well, waxing affectionately about playing Ed Rooney, after his recent brushes with the law concerning his tastes in photography. The only person missing is John Hughes.

I've shown my kids Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which, despite the PG-13 rating, is a very kid-friendly film. They enjoyed it, for which I'm glad, but I suspect that part of my motive was selfish, a need to revisit the days when I believed in my heart that my parents were as clueless as Ferris Bueller's. I want to be ready for the rapidly approaching day when my kids have their epiphany.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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