Not since Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause (1955) has a film so closely aligned itself with understanding teenage angst. The Breakfast Club (1985) remains a seminal masterwork from director, John Hughes, exposing the contradictions of youth with frank and astute evaluations, delving with uncharacteristic accuracy into this psychologically complex abyss. What more could have been expected of a teen movie back then, except to say it was about time! Drawing from his own feelings of inadequacy as a teen and a wellspring of razorback humor, Hughes creates the ultimate expression of what it meant to be a teenager in the 1980’s, a decade driven by yuppie greed and an exaggeration of artificially created barriers and stereotypes to divide and isolate young people, ironically, at a time when they are at their most emotionally insecure, vulnerable, and desperately need to belong. Hughes very keenly and deliberately focuses our first impressions on these more easily identifiable stereotypes; the jock, the preppie, the brain, the outcast and the burnout. But gradually, he looks beyond these mantles of self-pretend, created to shield their truer selves from the outside world.
As a character study, they don’t come much finer than The Breakfast Club, and so right for Hughes to have directed the picture under similar duress. Hughes reputation as the foremost purveyor of teen dramedy had yet to be fully tested and, around Hollywood at least, he had already acquired something of a name for being a perfectionist (code, for difficult). Perfectionists are seldom understood, though particularly in the 1980’s – a beleaguered decade where movies geared at teenagers were mostly crude sex comedies having limited appeal outside their targeted demographic. Of the alumni accrued for this ensemble, Hughes had only worked with Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall previously, and even then, only the year before in her and Hughes’ breakout movie; Sixteen Candles (1984). While ‘Candles’ now seems very much like a transitional piece, bridging the enormity of that gap between typically crude 70’s sex-orientated rom/com (a la Animal House 1978), The Breakfast Club has since achieved a palpable level of timeless endurance despite its obvious homage to 80’s chic clothing and hairstyles.
The deeper relationship audiences continue to have with this movie is more systemic; perhaps, because apart from acquiring more knowledge with life experiences after graduation, human beings really do not change all that much in personal outlooks, prejudices and character traits first realized, cautiously explored and then unabashedly expressed during these formative high school years. What The Breakfast Club does spectacularly well is to tap into the innate mistrusts and apprehensions we have of each other; Hughes ultimately revealing the more satisfyingly similarities that bind humanity together, each of the young people united only by this enforced prescription for discipline over their varying infractions against school policy. The common denominator: all are silently suffering in their own cringe-worthy arctic isolation. Yet, what is there among this disparate brood to make any of them see past their labels? “Saturday, March 24, 1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois...” begins Anthony Michael Hall’s narrated prologue, as the chosen spokesman of this self-professed ‘breakfast club’: “Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at seven o'clock this morning. We were brainwashed."
Actually, the movie begins with an even more sagacious quotation from David Bowie’s chart-topper, ‘Changes’: “...and these children that you spit on, as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They're quite aware of what they're going through...” This is accompanied by Simple Minds’ grippingly somber pop megahit, ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’; in hindsight, the ‘me generation’s’ most iconic anthem; in essence, setting up the elemental inquiries Hughes is about to ask and answer for both his characters and the audience: “Won't you come see about me? Tell me your troubles and doubts. Will you stand above me? Will you recognize me? Call my name or walk on by? As you walk on by, will you call my name?”
In hindsight, it’s easier to see how Hughes could relate to the predicament of Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), the meek, studious, yet frustratingly shy Brainiac, callously considered ‘the nerd’ by his peers because he is smart and a virgin. Hughes, a self-professed ‘quiet kid’ from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, discovered his earliest inspiration in 1963 with a move to Northbrook Illinois. It is rumored Hughes’ tenure at Glenbrook North High School was the template for situations unfolded in The Breakfast Club. Hughes, however, was impatient. After dropping out of university he spent some time peddling gags to well-established acts; also, landing his first ‘real job’ as an advertising copywriter. Eventually, he would write a short story for the popular magazine, National Lampoon. This became Hughes’ uncredited basis for their film, ‘Vacation’ – starring Chevy Chase. Hughes would receive his first screen credit for another NL movie, ‘Class Reunion’ (1982) – a major box office flop. All, however, was not lost; as ‘Vacation’ and another film, based on Hughes’ script, Mr. Mom (both released in 1983) quickly followed; a pair of very solid hits affording Hughes considerable clout and a three picture deal with Universal Studios.
Marking his directorial debut with Sixteen Candles (1984), Hughes departed from the more traditional crotch-grabbing humor taken to its extreme in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), long the staple of the teen ‘sex’ comedy. Instead, Hughes tapped into a more naturalistic depiction of the American teen as struggling to find his/her place in the world. Hughes may not have invented the format of combining chart-topping pop tunes with teenage dramedy but he definitely refined – nee matured – the thematic elements of this subgenre into a superior mélange of introspective social critiques. For Hughes, the teen flick ought to do more than rattle the funny-bone with gross out gags. It had to breathe in and expel an air of verisimilitude. At the time, The Breakfast Club – like all of Hughes’ movies – was rather unceremoniously lumped into the same classification as the aforementioned Fast Times, Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Animal House. Time, however, has illustrated the distinction of his contributions apart from this lot.
I would sincerely argue Hughes’ odes to the American teen are dramas with only a little comedy blended in, and always in service to Hughes’ quest to make meaning from the mayhem that is young adulthood. His movies continue to resonate with us, not simply for their ability to make us laugh or, on occasion cry, but because they stir unaffected and unexpected veracity for our shared anxieties. There is always a character in a John Hughes’ movie each and every one of us can directly relate to, and more than one we can recognize as substitutes for our families, friends and neighbors. The situations that arise in a John Hughes’ movie capture the essential, occasionally brutal realities of our collectively shared experiences in coming of age, but always with an enlightening dénouement. Hughes blind-eyed optimism, that everything will ultimately be resolved to our personal satisfaction, may be a tad optimistic, although, for the teen audience it ultimately proves as reassuring as the proverbial ‘security blanket’. But otherwise, such truth in cinema is rare, even more so in the ‘teen comedy’, so often exploited for immediate sexual gratification to titillate and draw in its prepubescent audience. Perhaps only now, some thirty years removed from its debut, is it possible to recognize and admire The Breakfast Club’s richer patina; also, the inspired thought process by which Hughes manages to open a wound into these fallible joys and anxiety-riddled sorrows. His message is clear: we are never quite as alone or isolated as we believe.
After the aforementioned prologue, Hughes lures us in with the expectation we are about to see another teen comedy. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is a prissy rich kid with absolutely no concept of life beyond her daddy's Platinum Visa. John Bender (Judd Nelson) comes from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, harboring a distinct resentment of authority. Incapable of being unique, Allyson Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) adopts the behavior of a psychologically complex outcast to distinguish herself from her peers. Varsity jock, Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) is outwardly ego-driven while inside he is absolutely crippled by the thought he might become a personal failure. Last, is Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall); a sharp mind whose geek status masks a more deep-seeded depression. Detained in the school's library for infractions incurred the week before (Claire cut class to go shopping, Bender was caught smoking weed behind the gym, Brian brought a loaded starter’s pistol to his locker to kill himself, and, Andrew taped a fellow wrestler’s hairy butt cheeks together on a dare) their stay together is further complicated when detention hall chaperone, Richard Vernon orders each of them to pen an essay explaining their actions.
At first this group, who seem to share little or nothing in common, revert to their stereotypes. Bender teases Allyson and berates Brian. Andrew presents himself as the forthright defender of Claire’s honor after Bender goads Brian – who is still a virgin – into suggesting, that in addition to the numerous girls living in the Niagara Falls region, he and Claire have been, as Bender puts it, ‘riding his hobby horse’. Brian is forced to confess his virginity. But Claire confides she doesn’t think there is anything wrong with a guy being chaste until the right girl comes along. Above it all, or at least, refusing to partake in these confrontations is Allyson, presumably, a mute. However, she slowly begins to open up to the group with a shocking tale about being seduced and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her psychiatrist. As with most of posing going on at the start of their initiation, this revelation turns out to be nothing more than a ruse; Allyson’s way of getting Claire to admit she too is a virgin, whereupon Allyson readily admits she has made up her entire story.
To afford everyone some privacy from Vernon’s watchful eye, Bender sabotages the mechanism in the library’s door so it will remain shut. Everyone skulks off to Bender’s locker where he reveals a considerable stash of marijuana. They barely making it back to the library before Vernon’s return. The adversarial relationship between Vernon and Bender borders on insidious as Vernon goads Bender into the opportunity to ground him in Saturday detentions for the next two months. Bender shares his stash with the rest of his detainees; their drug experimentations leading to a loss of inhibitions and truer still confessions. Ironically, these strike a chord of mutual understanding and respect. Bender confides he lives in an abusive household; his stepfather frequently putting out cigarette butts on his forearm. Both Brian and Andrew are brought to tears as each reveals his own insecurity; Andrew unable to live up to his father’s expectations to be a sport; Brian, confessing that the pressures of being the wiz kid have pushed him to the brink of contemplating suicide.
The last act of The Breakfast Club remains just a tad too optimistic as to what the future may hold for these celebrated misfits. Claire gives Allyson a cosmetic makeover; her new look revealing a minor beauty, suddenly appealing to Andrew. Claire then suggests to Bender she might be interested in pursuing a romantic relationship – something to drive her upscale preppy parents wild. Brian writes the sole essay Vernon had prescribed as their punishment. But the letter turns out to be a kiss off of his authority. The reiteration of Brian’s voiceover narration begun the movie differs significantly from this reprise in that it adopts a more hopeful tone. “Dear Mr Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”
The Breakfast Club is perhaps the most introspective retrospective on what it meant to be a teenager in the 1980s. That Hughes’ reflections have tapped into more than a handful of universal truths about adolescence, whatever the vintage, is icing on an already exceptionally well-frosted cake. With each new generation come new ideas, fashions and modes of rebellion. But The Breakfast Club endures because Hughes has cast his sights well beyond these immediate developments superficially lumped together as ‘his plot’. Hughes’ narrative isn’t about Claire and Bender’s burgeoning romance of convenience, Allyson’s self-discovery staring back at her from the mirror of Claire’s compact, or Brian’s shocking suicidal confession. These are mere ingredients Hughes exploits to season each character’s stewing ambitions and insecurities, even as he stirs the proverbial pot to its critical boiling point. In the end, normalcy is restored at a simmer, albeit with all the ingredients coming together; each life enriched in unexpected ways, their differences curiously melted away, or perhaps, blended.
Shot in Des Plaines, Illinois in a school closed for two years, The Breakfast Club remains the benchmark in ‘teen comedy’. For a brief wrinkle in time, it established ‘the brat pack’. Virtually all of its cast members went on to have lucrative careers. In retrospect, the entire cast is superb, although in reality, only Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall were actually teenagers at the time; Judd Nelson the grand old man, at twenty-five. According to Hughes, his first rough cut ran a little over two and a half hours. The theatrical release clocks in at 97 minutes. It has long been rumored Hughes held onto a copy of his beloved extended cut on VHS for his own edification. However, since the director's untimely death from a heart attack in 2009, this version has not resurfaced, even after Premiere Magazine ran a lengthy article in 2006 about the scenes excised from the theatrical release. Will we ever see this version resurface on home video? Unlikely. A better question: do we really need to? In its current form, The Breakfast Club is a perfect movie; the Citizen Kane of all teenage movies. Others have tried to replicate its formula and miserably failed. Mercifully, in the intervening thirty years we haven’t forgotten the staying power of The Breakfast Club. I said, la…la-la-la-la!
Five years ago, Universal Home Video bowed its 25th Anniversary of on Blu-Ray. Now, there is a new 30th Anniversary edition... well, sort of. More on this in a moment. The results on the 25th were hardly stellar; the image exhibiting a dated palette of color and minor instability and gate weave throughout. Reds were more muddy orange; flesh tones pasty and pale. Nothing about the visuals seemed to pop as it should. Worse: edge enhancement (that ought to have been eradicated from all DVD/Blu-Ray releases) occasionally plagued background detail. Close-ups faired marginally better. Yet, here too the image lacked punch. How much was the result of less than perfect film stock and vintage color processing? Hmmmm.
My guess: Universal’s first stab at a Blu-Ray was struck from a pre-existing transfer. We should also recall the studio was merely the co-distributor; The Breakfast Club made for and green lit and funded by A&M Films' - their first foray into co-production. As such, The Breakfast Club has the look of a low budget quickie. On the 25th, the image suffered from telecine wobble, sloppy edit jumps and splices. Universal ought to have corrected these but didn’t then and so, the Blu-ray, apart from looking marginally better than Universal’s old DVD, was imperfect to say the least.
The new 30th Anniversary is reportedly derived from an all new 4K scan of the original elements. It does, in fact, look marginally better than the 25th; the opening credit wobble and occasional dirt and other debris mercifully cleaned up for this reissue. Also more pleasing is the look of the film’s indigenous grain structure. It’s finer – nee smoother – without suggesting DNR. The biggest improvement is color; richer, deeper and adopting a significantly warmer tone. Which disc is truer to the way The Breakfast Club looked in theaters in 1984? Hmmm, again. I saw the film in a theater in 1984 but couldn’t tell you how it looked then. This new 30th anniversary seems completely organic in appearance. I prefer it.
Considerably better too this time around is this film’s DTS 5.1 audio, with the vintage 80’s music cues given an appropriately aggressive bass. Dialogue is still tinny and/or slightly muffled; in particular, Anthony Michael Hall’s voiceover narrations that bookend the show. The rest of the dialogue is generally solid; the sound field, while limited, nevertheless competently rendered. Save a new, and rather superfluous ‘trivia track’, virtually all the extras have been directly ported over from Universal’s 25th Anniversary edition, so nothing new to write home about. The 12-part documentary, ‘Sincerely Yours’ is a treasure trove of memories and nostalgia put forth by some of the cast and crew, also showcasing rehearsals and outtakes. Very nicely done. I detest making recommendations for a ‘double dip’. By my way of thinking, studios ought to get all their ducks in a row the first time. But hey, what do I know? For the overall improvement in video quality, this 30th Anniversary gets my solid recommendation. It’s not perfect. Then again; so little catalog on Blu-ray is!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)