In Search of the Ultimate Teen Movie Soundtrack

A Literary Mixtape, by Jason Diamond

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about teen films, specifically the movies John Hughes made in the 1980s. I spent so much time obsessing over them that at some point in my twenties I tried to write a biography of the director, but it never panned out. I write about that in my memoir, Searching for John Hughes, but I also write about why his films, and other films with teen protagonists — from Heathers to Dope — have always appealed to me. A big part of it is the music.

A perfect example is a scene in one of my favorite movies, Over the Edge, where the main character, Carl, is lying in bed, blasting Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” in his headphones. It’s so simple, but to me it’s one of the best moments in any teen film I can think of. The song fits so perfectly into a moment that we all experienced in high school (and maybe even still experience as adults), just sitting around listening to music and daydreaming.

Picking music for a good soundtrack for a movie focused on teens isn’t a difficult thing to pull off, but good songs can help really make a movie. There’s sort of a formula to it, you just have to keep in mind there are basically three ways to do it:

  • The current, cool song route
  • The nostalgia, period-specific route
  • The score route

The current route is pretty easy. Think almost any new wave-heavy John Hughes film from the Eighties, “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve in that final scene of Cruel Intentions or the Clueless soundtrack packed with Radiohead, The Muffs and Jill Sobule — that’s about as Nineties as you can get. Even today, a movie like Edge of Seventeen utilizes songs by A$AP Ferg and Santigold. You’re portraying teens, so you want to try your best to put music they’d maybe listen to on the soundtrack .

Nostalgia might take a little bit of work. What kind of music would stoned teens from some Texas town in 1976 listen to? Richard Linklater did a good job figuring it out with all that Runaways and Foghat in Dazed in Confused. I think if you were going to adapt a book like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which is set in the Eighties, then you’re going to want to go with period-specific songs, but you could probably get away with throwing in something that sounds like it comes from the era — Savages or The Horrors both come to mind. Hell, if you do some sort of new take on a story from the Reagan era, you could easily throw the title track off the new Bruno Mars album, 24K Magic, into the mix, as long as there’s a dance scene (and there should almost always be some sort of dance scene). If I were to adapt Robin Wasserman’s great Girls on Fire, there would obviously be a ton of Nirvana, but I’d also try and throw in some other grunge songs by Soundgarden and Mudhoney, maybe a Bikini Kill song, as well as some early 1990s pop hits to balance things out.

The other nostalgia thing is you need to have a few older songs in a movie no matter what. Not sure how that rule came about, but Duckie dancing to Otis Redding and Pretty in Pink and The Kinks in Juno make it a rule. Sorry.

Or you could do the score route. The Harry Potter films did a good job with that, but normally I wouldn’t recommend it. You’d be better off mixing in some weird synth stuff with pop songs, like in Risky Business, or just doing a total Tangerine Dream worship deal, like they did in Stranger Things.

The most important thing is mood. Teens are moody as hell, and I’ll be honest, I think a movie that captured this well was The Lost Boys. INXS? Echo and the Bunnymen covering The Doors? That was smooth. I won’t say you always have to go the goth kid route with this one, but I think it could help.

With all that in mind, here is my soundtrack for a teen film with just about everything thrown in. Let’s just imagine it’s a movie about a quiet (but really good looking) 16-year-old guy who is in love with a popular girl who’s a senior and who also happens to be a vampire.

1. “Hit” by Sugarcubes

Every movie like this needs some sort of upbeat opening, especially one that starts out with a record scratching. In my mind it’s got to be this Sugarcubes song. We show the school or the town or the mall where our characters spend a lot of time as this song plays over the opening credits.

2. “Still Life” by The Horrors

The popular vampire girl is at a house party and sets her sights on the neck of the 16-year-old, but then they lock eyes while this song plays. She feels something, but she doesn’t know what. Vampires aren’t supposed to have feelings!

3. “Mercedes Boy” by Pebbles

The popular vampire is hanging out at the mall with her friends. There’s some whole special way she’s allowed to hang out indoors in the daytime, but we won’t get into that now. Let’s just say she has a really cool crystal around her neck that her arch rival (we will name her Heather because this is a teen movie) totally covets. They’re walking around as this song plays.

Cameron hasn’t seen anything good. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986.

4. “The Way I Walk” by The Cramps

16-year-old boy is talking to his good friend. Let’s call him. Billy Rogers. Billy does the high school radio show, “Rockin’ With Billy.” He’s got a pompadour, wears creepers and bolo ties, and always has a cigarette tucked behind his ear. A recurring gag: a teacher in a short-sleeve shirt and a tie walks up to him and says, “No smoking, Mr. Rogers” and pulls the cigarette out from his ear.

5. “Heaven or Las Vegas” by Cocteau Twins

16-year-old and cool vampire bump into each other. It’s awkward because a few scenes earlier she was trying to kill him. They lock eyes again, but she’s got to go. “She’s amazing,” 16-year-old says to Billy. “Get over her,” his friend tells him. “She’s out of your league.”

6. “Pale Moon” by Wymond Miles

Cool vampire is feeling things. She’s fretting about it. Her father comes to talk with her. He confides in her he had feelings once, hundreds of years ago. He decided to bite the neck of the woman he loved and made her his eternal bride — cool vampire girl’s mom. This is a somewhat shocking revelation.

You’re a liar and a thief. Say Anything, 1989.

7. “I’m Dead” by The Limiñanas

This song plays as the cool vampire and 16-year-old boy try on clothes. They both know they’re going to be at the same place and they each plan to tell the other how they feel.

8. “Madder Red” by Yeasayer

They’re…on the beach! It’s nighttime, everything is chill. She sees him from a distance, he smiles, but she realizes that it can never be. The cool vampire turns into a bat and flies away. The worst part is her rival (remember her?) steals her cool crystal.

Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You. 10 Things I Hate About You, 1999.

9. “Release the Bats” by the Birthday Party

Upset, the cool vampire slaughters a gang of bad guys who are preying on unsuspecting victims (we could foreshadow this earlier in the film, but they’re bad dudes).

10. “I Know it’s Over” by The Smiths

We find both the cool vampire and the boy sulking in their rooms. The Smiths has to play in this scene. I think it’s a law or something.

11. “What About Your Friends” by TLC

It’s the night of the dance. We see the school gym packed with balloons and cool kids. The cool vampire is at home sulking in her coffin until her mom walks in and gives her a pep talk, opens up the closet and there’s a Victorian-era dress dress soaked in blood hanging in there. “Now go out and get that boy,” she says.

12. “Love Comes Close” by Cold Cave

The cool vampire and the 16-year-old boy both walk into the gym from opposite sides and lock eyes. As they walk towards each other, cool vampire rips her crystal from her rival’ neck and says, “I believe that’s mine.” She and the boy stand face to face and look into each others eyes. They start dancing and then kiss!

You can’t help who you love, Derek. Save the Last Dance, 2001.

Yay! Happy ending.

13. “Dream Baby Dream by Black Tambourine

Credits! You need a song like this for the credits. We could have used the original version but whatever.

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