All I knew about The Smiths, back when they were making a splash, was that they had an album called Meat is Murder, which didn’t sound all that promising. I never heard a thing they recorded, and thus found myself unexpectedly fascinated with the enchanting and unfamiliar melody of the instrumental with which John Hughes scored the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It was a beautiful part of a beautifully unforgettable cinema moment, and I gathered from the credits that it must have been performed by the Dream Academy, a group then best known for the hit Life in a Northern Town. It sounded just like them from the arrangement, with its big studio echo and woodwind accompaniment, but I misidentified it as another Dream Academy song, The Edge of Forever, also used in the movie and listed in the credits. This was back way before streaming, iTunes, YouTube, Shazam and the like. I searched for it high and low for a while before giving up – frustratingly, there never was a soundtrack album for Ferris Bueller – and loved it every time I rewatched the movie on my blurry, low-fi VCR.
I don’t remember where I finally heard the original. Maybe my brother played it for me – I’ve found my way to a lot of my favourite music through him. It wasn’t an instrumental, and it wasn’t by the Dream Academy. It was the Meat is Murder guys. I soon discovered that Smiths band mates Morrissey and Johnny Marr were composing some of the most flat-out gorgeous pop songs I’d ever heard, like How Soon is Now, There is a Light That Never Goes Out, and best of all, discovered at last, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want, which clocked in at less than two rapturous minutes.
The version attached above is a vocal rendition by the Dream Academy, whose typically lavish studio treatment might seem a little too slick and glossy for some, but for this song sounds fitting to my ears. They make it last more than two minutes, and that seems appropriate too. Attached below is the museum scene, and the Dream Academy’s instrumental version.
Ferris Bueller takes place in Chicago, and the museum he and his friends are visiting is the Art Institute. It’s not a set made up to look like the Art Institute – it’s the real deal. I’ve stood just where Ferris, Cameron and Sloane are depicted, and been just as moved by the sublime masterworks as the kids are, especially Hopper’s Nighthawks, the portraits of Singer Sargent, and of course Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, in which Cameron immerses himself while Ferris and Sloane get romantic against the backdrop of Chagall’s ineffably beautiful stained glass piece, America Windows.
Nobody who’s seen the movie could visit the museum and pause in front of the Seurat without being reminded of Cameron, who stares ever more intently into the pointillist canvas, the camera zooming in, while the painted image of the child becomes less and less distinct, finally dissolving into splotches of colour that don’t look like anything at all. It’s hard to imagine a better song to serve as the soundtrack to Cameron’s poignant epiphany, as he realizes that the harder he looks at his own life, the less it seems to mean.