How the Sound of the ’80s Returned to Theaters This Summer

By  · Published on August 26th, 2015

Cara Delevingne in Paper Towns (20th Century Fox)

A new sound seemed to emerge in theaters this summer – or I should say, an old sound seemed to come back: that of the 1980s. In the ’80s, John Hughes was the master at creating films aimed at (and starring) teens still navigating the troubling waters of high school (see: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club) to young adults navigating the still troublesome waters of early adulthood (see: St. Elmo’s Fire).

Beyond honest storytelling and relatable characters, Hughes knew how to create the sound of this generation – because despite the hardships that come with growing up, kids still know how to have fun! Hughes’ films would deliver some hard truths and then pair it with a scene of kids rocking out together or being found passed out drunk on the front lawn after a late night party.

However movies aimed at teens and young adults today seem to have forgotten the entertaining aspect of these years to focus solely on the struggles and pair those dramatic moments with emo-driven soundtracks that make you feel more melancholy than hopeful (see: all Twilight movies and soundtracks).

But if there was ever a time to embrace the more carefree aspects of life (regardless of what age you are) it should be during the summertime. And this summer, movies seemed to get an infusion of ’80s synth and dance beats thanks to the soundtracks for Paper Towns and Mistress America.

Paper Towns’ author John Green (who wrote the novel the movie is based on) might be biased in deeming the film’s soundtrack the “perfect summer album,” but he is not wrong in his assessment thanks to its collection of upbeat songs that could have just as easily played alongside Molly Ringwald as Cara Delevingne. The soundtrack is fun, carefree, and feels decidedly different than the standard teen angst that usually populates these kinds of movies. But that is not to say Paper Towns does not deal with heavier issues – it certainly does – but it does so while still feeling lively and youthful with tracks from Santigold, HAIM, and De Lux.

The film’s director, Jake Schreier, filled Paper Towns with believable teens on the precipice of being thrust into the “real world” post-high school graduation. When Margo (Delevingne) disappears, it is concerning, but Paper Towns approaches her disappearance with hopeful mysticism, backed by a road trip worthy soundtrack, making the film more about bringing these friends together than what happens when they do (or don’t) find Margo.

Mistress America (Fox Searchlight)

Mistress America fast-forwards things a bit to tell the story of Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is starting college and struggling to make friends. But when she meets up with the older Brooke (Greta Gerwig), she gets swept up in Brooke’s idealistic world full of fortune cookie wisdom and big dreams. Director Noah Baumbach can be a bit heavy handed (and not at all hopeful) with his view of the world, but Mistress America zips around these issues thanks to Gerwig’s humor, but also the ’80s sounding synth score from Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. This could have been an indie film about the struggles of adapting to new environments (whether that be college or young adulthood), but it gets an infusion of lightness thanks to the music.

Wareham and Philips score adds a shiny gloss to Mistress America and perfectly reflects Brooke’s view of the world as she dances through life. Sounding reminiscent of the music Tangerine Dream created for Risky Business, Wareham and Philips’ score is catchy and almost sounds like it was created three decades ago. This choice gives Mistress America a timeless feel, but more importantly, helps keep the narrative from becoming too heavy handed.

Both Paper Towns and Mistress America deal with the issue of growing up, but they do so in a way that leaves you feeling optimistic instead of alarmed. And that feeling is underlined by each film’s ’80s influenced soundtrack and score. Even when Brooke is spouting off about her (insane) life plans, you cannot help but smile when she is accompanied by music that reminds you she should not be taken that seriously. Synth has the power to crush cynicism and while Mistress America could cause your more pessimistic side to roll your eyes at Brooke’s misguided attempts to make something of herself, the sanguine soundtrack helps you realize that her worldview is born out of naiveté rather than purposefully misguiding Tracy and herself.

Paper Towns’ Quentin (Nat Wolf) becomes obsessed with finding Margo, but his quest ends up showing him what he already has and culminates on the dance floor at senior prom – much like the final scene in Footloose (with far less choreography). For both Paper Towns and Mistress America, the journey is as important as what it teaches each character and the ride is all the more enjoyable when it’s full of music that simply makes you feel good.

Growing up is messy and hardly easy, but there is something wonderful about being young and knowing the whole world is still spread out in front of you (and you do not have to take complete responsibility in it quite yet). As Ferris Bueller wisely told us, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Kids in the ’80s (or at least the movies depicting them) understood that focusing only on the adversity and difficulties that come with growing up is no way to go through life – you need to embrace the joy that comes with ditching school for the day or making unexpected friends during Saturday detention. And the music for Paper Towns and Mistress America helped bring back the feeling of that enjoyment and should keep us dancing and feeling good well after summer ends.