Music played an iconic role in John Hughes’ 1986 classic movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Whether it was Yello’s ‘Oh Yeah’ illustrating the excesses and inimitable cool of a Ferrari 250 or Ferris singlehandedly taking over the streets of Chicago with a rousing performance of The Beatles song ‘Twist and Shout’, Hughes had a remarkable ability to key into what kind of message he wanted to communicate, often finding the perfect piece of music to accompany the scene.
We’d probably call these “needle drops” in today’s vernacular, but back in Hughes’ heyday, they were literally dropping needles on records instead of just hitting digital playback buttons. All of Hughes’ films utilise his love of music, with ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ in The Breakfast Club and Oingo Boingo’s title track for Weird Science being notable examples, and they almost always made everything the character’s did on screen seem cooler.
But what about when Hughes’ wanted the opposite effect? Well, that’s when he dug through his record collection to find one of his least favourite songs of all time: ‘Danke Schoen’, the German pop standard made famous by Vegas crooner Wayne Newton in 1963. Hughes’ sordid personal history with the song inspired its use in the film. “‘Danke Schoen’ was the most awful song of my youth,” Hughes recalled in the film’s director’s commentary. “Every time it came on, I just wanted to scream, claw my face. I was taking German in high school—which meant that we listened to it in school. I couldn’t get away from it”.
However, the teenage connection with the song obviously rubbed off on Hughes, and the song became a recurring feature of the film. Characters like Ferris, his sister Jeanie, and even the evil Edward Rooney hum along to the song’s familiar refrain throughout the film. Matthew Broderick needed some time to learn the song, and one of his practice sessions came while they were recording the shower scene.
“Although it’s only because of the brilliance of John’s deciding that I should sing ‘Danke Schoen’ on the float in the parade, I had never heard the song before,” Broderick explained to Vanity Fair in 2020. “I was learning it for the parade scene. So we’re doing the shower scene and I thought, ‘Well, I can do a little rehearsal.’ And I did something with my hair to make that Mohawk. And you know what good directors do: they say, ‘Stop! Wait until we roll.’ And John put that stuff in”.
Almost as a contrast to the sleek modernity of ‘Oh Yeah’ and the classic raucousness of ‘Twist and Shout’ came ‘Danke Schoen’: refined, classy, twee, and certainly not cool. But because this was Ferris Bueller singing the song, it automatically became a cinematic touchstone. Even though Hughes hated the song, he singlehandedly elevated it to a place of cultural legend.