The anniversary of John Lennon’s murder is December 8 – I look at the nexus of John Hughes’ classic ’80s teen movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the Beatles and the death of John.
The premise of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Ferris’s (Matthew Broderick) ability to pull off ever-more improbable feats of deception and derring-do in the ultimate teen fantasy.
First, he fakes (another) illness, then he rigs up the house for every contingency with his computer: his sampler runs a loop of snoring. The doorbell sets off a tape recording, “I’m sorry, I can’t come to the door right now, in my weakened condition I might fall and hurt myself.”
Next, he hacks into the school’s computer (in a play on Broderick’s first film War Games) and eliminates its memory of his nine previous absenses.
Ferris has two antagonists: his own sister Jeanie (pre-Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey), and the school’s VP, Edward J. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones). Their accelerating malevolance and impotence in bringing Ferris to justice set up the funniest moments in the film, which is also spiced with countless moments of adolescent truth.
The banality of high school is brilliantly summarized by the economics teacher (Ben Stein) who calls attendance with the priceless somnambulent drone, “Buehler”?, Buehler?, Buehler?, Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?,” hoping that the incantation of a student’s name will cause him to appear.
He brings the same tone to academics: “Candidate George Bush called this What? Anyone? Anyone? Something-economics. Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?”
Drool trickles down one catatonic victim’s chin, “Something ‘doo’ economics, Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Voodoo economics.”
He continues his hopeless Socratic quest.
Ferris’s next task is to rouse his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) from his hypochondriac deathbed. Ferris finally manipulates Cameron into obeisance and then leaps to the next level of effrontery. He induces Cameron to imitate his girlfriend Sloane’s (Mia Sara) father’s voice so that Rooney will release her from school also.
In a hysterical scene between Cameron, Rooney, Rooney’s secretary and Ferris, the deed is done: “I’d like you to release Sloane for me, her Grandmother passed on.”
Rooney thinks it’s Ferris on the line. “I’ll release Sloane when you produce a corpse, and if you don’t like it you can come by and smooch my big, white butt. Pucker up Buttercup.”
At this choice moment Ferris calls Rooney from Cameron’s other line to request, “Can my sister pick up my homework? I’d hate to get behind in my school work.”
Rooney’s face freezes in an exquisite moment of existential agony. Sloane’s “father” is on hold. The hold-light blinks mockingly. Rooney finally returns, sputtering obsequiously and begging forgiveness. This is a moment of profound satisfaction for all adolescents and all who can remember adolescence. Who wouldn’t give his left kneecap to be able to subject an autocratic dickweed like Edward J. Rooney to such abject humiliation? I would. Well, maybe not a kneecap.
By now reality has little bearing upon our emotional attachment to the movie. We want Ferris to scale ever more impossible heights of irresponsibility and get away with it with aplomb and savoir faire.
Cameron as “Dad” arranges for Sloane to be picked up. Ferris’s next move is to convince Cameron to “borrow” his father’s prized Ferrari convertible, recipient of more love than Cameron. Ferris succeeds, mainly on the line, “Rooney would never believe that Sloane’s father would drive a piece of shit like your [Cameron’s] car.”
Ferris apologizes with, “It is a piece of shit, but I have to envy you because I don’t even have a piece of shit.”
Ferris then explains his love/hate relationship with his computer, “I asked for a car and I got a computer,” thus rationalizing all of the deceptions made with the computer.
By now a rumor has spread at school that Ferris is deathly ill. A collection is taken to fund a kidney transplant operation (and the origin of the band name “Save Ferris”).
Ferris’s sister fumes, “Why should he get away with everything?” This is, indeed, a rational question. The answer, of course, is that he can. What makes Ferris the elite of the elite? What makes the “Jocks, motorheads, stoners, sluts, bloods, dweebies, brains and dickheads” all think that “Ferris is a righteous dude”? Because Ferris can get away with anything and this welter of admirers hopes that some of the magic will rub off on them.
“Ferris can’t die, he’s getting me out of summer school. I can’t handle summer school,” says one dazed freshman. To a teenager, the essence of life is to be able to do things – things that give you a charge, things that give you the blue electric taste in the back of your mouth – and get away with it.
How much can you get away with? How far can you push it? The only limits are your audacity, ingenuity, and (most importantly) luck to pull it off. Ferris Bueller is to high school what Animal House is to college – an idealized fantasy redolent of truth.
When Ferris disguised as “Dad” picks up Sloane in front of the school, Rooney is still clucking away about the depth of his sorrow at her loss. Sloane can’t hide her contempt for Rooney and her amusement with the situation. She has been infected by the Ferris bug. She summons all of her charm and says, “You’re a warm, kindhearted man, Edward Rooney,” and kisses him on the cheek, joining the blowoff parade.
She walks down to Ferris who, still as “Dad,” passionately kisses her. “So that’s how it is in their family,” Rooney sagely notes as Ferris, Sloane and Cameron (hiding in the back seat) speed off. Rooney, a worthy adversary, senses that something is wrong.
The threesome joyfully speed into Chicago and park the car with dubious attendants. Ferris tips them “a finsky” to give the car some extra attention. In the film’s first recognition that Ferris is fallible, the attendants speed off on a notable joy ride.
The trio attend to a Cub’s game at Wrigley, wander to the art museum to ponder the verities, go up in the Sears Tower where Ferris shows the others how to lean over the railing and peer into the vertiginous depths.
They go to lunch, three scruffy kids at Chicago’s snottiest restaurant. Ferris, using the double-phone ruse again, convinces the effete, snotty, maitre’d that he is, in the flesh, Abe Froman “the Sausage King of Chicago.” It is an inspired moment – they have literally scaled the heights and are sitting on top of the world.
Near misses are all part of the game, the “day off” wouldn’t be fun without them. The trio appears on TV catching a foul ball at Wrigley. Rooney, in pursuit of the chimera of Ferris and thinking way too small, has gone to the mall. He looks at a TV just as the camera pulls back from Ferris in the stands at the ballgame. Rooney is “not the type of educator to let some snotnosed kid like Ferris Buehler leave [his] cheese out in the wind.” This colorful language is Rooney’s most endearing quality.
Another, even closer call occurs outside the restaurant when Ferris’s father vies with the prodigals for the same cab. Ferris ducks around his father’s back and deftly snatches the cab from his preoccupied, blithely unsuspecting parent. This moment has greater emotional risk than the Rooney episodes. Rooney knows what Ferris is up to, but neither loving mom nor doting dad suspect a thing.
This is Ferris’s one show of conscience. He will manipulate his parents like marionettes but he doesn’t want to hurt them by exposing their trust as misguided. Besides, his parents’ trust is his best shield. Hence, the elaborate structure of deceit. Ferris skates close to the edge with Rooney so that he may humiliate him – he has no such desires for his parents.
This also confirms another teenage reality lying just below the surface of most adolescent skin: that parents are your greatest assets and advocates and that teenage life is heaven with them on your side – one can only indulge in inspired exploits from a position of domestic security.
Retaining this position is the greatest “getting away with it” of all, and this is why Jeanie’s muffin is so burned. She doesn’t understand that elaborate and safeguarded deception is a form of filial piety.
The audience can sense that Ferris’s audacity must lead him to one great climactic feat. Ferris disappears, we know that something is up. This is the penultimate moment before the film’s dramatic climax. What will Ferris do? Will he fulfill his potential? Will he fulfill our vicarious desires? Will the act be momentous enough to justify his manipulation of friends, family and the system? Will he get caught?
Suddenly the strolling Cameron and Sloane come upon a parade, a big one with floats and marching bands. Where is Ferris?
“He probably blew us off and went back to school, just to get me in trouble,” Cameron mutters. Sloane knows better. The parade stops. Gradually our attention is drawn to a float, the one with all of the frauleins on it.
Can it be? Yes it is. Ferris in his dippy leopard-skin vest and white t-shirt is on the float. Cameron is blown away, “You’re nailed, I can’t believe you, you’re nailed,” he intones. But he’s smiling.
Ferris breaks into a spirited lip-sync of “Danke Schoen,” Wayne Newton’s claim to fame. It’s amusing, but is that it? We squirm apprehensively.
Then, like thunder and lighting, the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” kicks in. The volume in the theater goes up, the energy level shoots through the ceiling. Everything that is great about rock ‘n’ roll, everything that is great about the Beatles comes pouring through the speakers and appears on the screen.
Ferris Bueller becomes not just John Lennon singing lead, not just the four Beatles, he becomes rock ‘n’ roll itself in its purest form, through mime. When Ferris lip-syncs “Twist and Shout” he isn’t pretending to sing the song, he is symbolizing the physicality of what it means to sing a song.
A record, as opposed to a live performance, asks all present, all within ear shot, to participate, to live out a physical relationship with that song. “Twist and Shout” is the perfect choice because it is rock ‘n’ roll’s (the most physical musical form) best practitioner’s (the Beatles) most physical song, both in performance and in subject matter.
John Lennon sang “Twist and Shout” as though the words were joyful corrosive poison, that his only hope of survival was to expel them with all the vehemence and alacrity that his rhythm-besotted body could muster. As does Ferris:
“Well, Shake it up, Baby now (Skake it up Baby)
Twist and Shout (Twist and Shout)
C’mon, C’mon, C’mon Baby now (C’mon Baby)
C’mon and work it on out. (Work it on out, Oooh!)”
John/Ferris sings the “C’mon’s” as though his tongue is trying to push through the roof of his mouth to his nose. You can actually hear sinus echoes at the end of some of the words – this is how Lennon generated such an amazing velocity of sound on the rockers, especially “Twist and Shout” and “Money.” You can see it in films of him singing: look at the angle of his head in the concert scenes from A Hard Day’s Night, he is singing out of his nose.
“Well, work it on out, honey (Work it on out)
You know you look so good (Look so good)
You know you got me going (Got me going)
Just like I knew you would (Like I knew you would, Oooh!)”
Paul and George’s responses try to flatten out the mouth shattering intensity of John’s delivery, but give up at the end of each stanza and match John’s zeal with their delirious “Ooohs.” They are enjoying themselves so much that this is the most important thing in their lives. The Beatles knew the awesome responsibilities of pleasure.
“You know you twist, little girl (Twist little girl)
You know you twist so fine (Twist so fine)
C’mon and twist a little closer now (Twist a little closer)
And let me know that you’re mine (Know you’re mine, Oooh!)”
The Beatles were great, so greatness pervades most of their music, but for physicality, for sheer joy and a reason to keep on living in the material world, nothing beats the early Beatles, and “Twist and Shout” is the best of them all.
Ferris lips lustily, the frauleins shimmy and shake and bounce off of Ferris like electrons. The thousands in the crowd sing from the pits of their pelvises. Chicago jams as one, recreating the Beatles’ amazing real-life feat of generating a unifying mass-madness that changed people’s lives for a time. (A vivid recollection from my early childhood is film footage of an elderly Liverpool gentleman tapping his foot to the Beatles.)
The Beatles generated an intensity of joy and physicality that slapped tens of millions of people in the face with the awareness that joy and happiness and exuberance were not only possible, but inevitable. The Beatles generated an energy that was amplified a million times over and returned to them in a deafening tidal wave of grateful hysteria.
When I saw Ferris Bueller in the theater in ’86, people actually stood up and started dancing in the aisles. How could they not? The “Twist and Shout” segment is the most exciting and joyous musical segment in a movie since the Beatles own A Hard Day’s Night, and is the perfect climax to Ferris Bueller’s exploits.
He has succeeded in invigorating an entire city. He has become the very spirit of rock ‘n’ roll at its most unifying. Even on the movie set, those actors were one for 2 minutes and 29 seconds.
In the theater, when Broderick/Beuller fell back drained into the waiting arms of the frauleins, the applause in the audience was heartfelt and the gratitude real, for he reminded us of what was and what can be.
The rest of the movie is anticlimactic, how could it not be? The trio heads back, Cameron to destroy his father’s car, Sloane to contemplate her relationship with Ferris, Ferris to haul ass home before his sister, Rooney or his parents can nail him. He does so successfully by the skin of his computer, with a nice final twist as Jeanie finally sees the light of Ferris’s rare glow and turns the tables on Rooney.
The Beatlehood of John Lennon
Ferris Beuller reminds us of what the Beatles did, and lets us hear, see and feel what they were. Paul lost most of his brain when John left. John lost part of his heart when Paul left. John said later that no one ever had, or ever would, hurt him as badly as Paul McCartney did.
I cried when John Lennon died at the end of 1980, after he had rediscovered his happiness and its musical expression for the first time in 15 years. The incredible unfairness was just too much to bear. I hadn’t even realized the extent of John’s contributions to the Beatles until then.
The Beatles made an incredible promise and instead of backing down from that promise they delivered and delivered and delivered for eight years until the full implications of the promise finally hit them: they were staring into the jaws of an insatiable, ravenous beast that was no less beastly because it smiled and waved and gave them money. The Beatles finally suffered a collective inability to pretend that the beast was not a beast, then they became human.
Ten years later, in 1980, John was willing to take on the beast again. This was all the more noble because John knew best of all the limitless demands his reemergence would instigate. But he said, “That’s okay, I have this to say. It’s about things that I only had an abstract understanding of before, like fatherhood and true love, and the foolishness of politics. I finally understand myself.”
A happy, centered and positive John Lennon was awesome to behold. Then he was dead.
I cried as I realized that John Lennon was the Beatles – not that the others don’t count, not that Paul wasn’t my favorite. He was. But they all, especially Paul, played off of John. He was the foundation upon which they could establish their variant personalities.
Paul has never written solo anything close to the quality of his best Beatle work – not once. He ceased to be a Beatle when the Beatles died, but John never did. John wasn’t a Beatle, he was THE Beatle, and all of his protestations to the contrary rang hollow and false. The more he tried to deny his Beatlehood, his Beatlehead, the more it bore into him and made him miserable. Denial only delays the inevitable encounter with reality, and denial makes it ever harder to survive that encounter, but John did survive it and did realize that he DID believe in Beatles, as well as believe in John, because they were one and the same.
John did make music that equaled his Beatle music, just listen to Lennon Legend, even the early, angry stuff takes on a whole new resonance in light of Double Fantasy: “Instant Karma” is balanced by “Watching the Wheels.” The sloganeering of “Give Peace A Chance” is balanced by the concrete, personal action of “(Just Like) Starting Over.” The existentialism of “Imagine” is countered by the surpassing spirituality of “Beautiful Boy.”
Let’s not “Imagine all the people/Living for today,” let’s consider this:
“I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
But I guess we’ll both
Just have to be patient
Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy
Making other plans”
If that doesn’t choke you up in light of what happened months later, you’re made of stone. Thank you John, Mop Tops, and Ferris.