Left of Center: the Pretty in Pink Soundtrack at 35
Director John Hughes’s curatorial powers got college rock higher than ever on the charts
Remember when the Smiths, New Order, and the Psychedelic Furs made the top 5 on Billboard’s album chart?
The week that the soundtrack to the John Hughes-penned, Howard Deutch-directed film Pretty in Pink climbed to number 5 on Billboard’s flagship Top Pop Albums listing, the four albums ahead of it were by Van Halen, Whitney Houston, Prince and the Revolution and the Rolling Stones. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Joining them in the Top 10 that week were Heart, Robert Palmer, Sade, and Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band: mainstreamers, every one of ‘em. The only Top Ten album anywhere remotely near Pretty in Pink in artistic terms was that by the German weirdo Falco (and I mean “weirdo” as a high compliment in this context), whose Falco 3 rode the success of his fluke #1 smash “Rock Me Amadeus” all the way to #3 the previous week.
But there was nothing quite like the soundtrack that Hughes assembled for Pretty in Pink, the third film he’d written to star Molly Ringwald in a lead role, following of course 1984’s Sixteen Candles and 1985’s The Breakfast Club. Released at the end of February ‘86, the film made almost $7.5M in its opening week – almost $20M in 2021 dollars. In Ringwald’s own words (from an article she wrote for The New Yorker in 2018), “I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius.” In fact, not only did she make the cover of Time, but right around the release of Pretty in Pink, she covered Life as well. In 1986, Molly Ringwald was a big star, and Pretty in Pink couldn’t help but be a smash. And neither could its soundtrack.
There was music in Hughes’s previous film, The Breakfast Club, and it even featured a #1, era-defining single in Simple Minds’s “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – but not much else on its soundtrack was particularly memorable (and the film itself wasn’t very music-driven), and the album only peaked at #17. Pretty in Pink, however, was different. For starters, Ringwald’s character, Andie Walsh, works in a record store (run by Annie Potts’s Iona), where a number of scenes take place. There are scenes in a nightclub as well, in which the Rave-Ups perform, though they weren’t featured on the soundtrack.
The album has a number of now-iconic UK college rock artists on it, none of whom had come anywhere near the tops of the US pops in 1986: New Order (who actually had a trio of songs featured in the film, though only “Shell-Shock” appears on its soundtrack), Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, Psychedelic Furs (who re-recorded “Pretty in Pink,” originally from their ‘81 album Talk Talk Talk, in a slightly more pop-friendly version for the film; the new single peaked at #41 in the US), and most of all, British synthpop stars Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a/k/a OMD, whose “If You Leave” soundtracked the film’s climactic prom scene. Previously unknown to American top 40 audiences, their song became a huge hit, peaking at #4 on the Hot 100.
VIDEO: Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark “If You Leave”
Suzanne Vega, then hot off her self-titled 1985 album, also appears on the soundtrack, with Joe Jackson on piano, as do fellow ‘85 breakthroughs INXS, former Time member Jesse Johnson, former Three Dog Night singer Danny Hutton – singing a 1984 Nik Kershaw song (I am not making that up), and UK synthpopper Belouis Some, who had notched a pair of top 10 US dance hits in ‘85.
Pretty in Pink’s soundtrack actually beat its hit single into the top 5: the album made its #5 peak the week ending May 3, 1986, whilst “If You Leave” was still on the climb; OMD didn’t make it to their own #4 peak until four weeks later, on May 31st, at which point Pretty in Pink began a slow slide down the album chart. Why did this album, full of artists largely unknown to American audiences, make such a huge impact? I will, in the words of the Jesus & Mary Chain, never understand.
VIDEO: Psychedelic Furs “Pretty In Pink” (1986)
Plenty of songs are hit singles without carrying their parent albums up the chart with them, which would’ve been a much more likely scenario in this case; this is a very solid, though by no means impeccable, collection of songs. But who, who lived through it at the time (especially those like me, who were teenagers), doesn’t get caught up in the swoony romance of “If You Leave,” thinking of Andie and Blane’s parking lot kiss? The way Deutsch ended the film (changing Hughes’s original ending after test screenings) is such a *chef’s kiss*, and this soundtrack absolutely takes you back there.
I suspect that’s why the soundtrack was such a hit, and endures to this day.
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