BACK TO THE FUTURE – Alan Silvestri
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In the spring of 1985, Robert Zemeckis was a young up-and-coming director who had enjoyed some success with the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner adventure flick Romancing the Stone the year before, but for the most part was still largely an unknown quantity. His breakthrough came with the release of Back to the Future, a classic time-travelling comedy adventure which went on to become the biggest grossing film of the year, made Michael J. Fox a movie star, and cemented the much-derided DeLorean automobile into cinematic folklore forever. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a typical 1980s kid from suburban California, who is accidentally sent back to the year 1955 by his friend, scientist and inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who has built a time machine out of the aforementioned DeLorean. Stranded in time and without enough fuel to return home, Marty must seek help from the 1955 version of Doc – but, unfortunately, he inadvertently puts his own future at risk when the teenage version of his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) meets and develops a crush on him rather than George (Crispin Glover), the man destined to be his father…
Back to the Future connected with audiences world-wide, who fell in love with the film’s fish-out-of-water comedy, 1950s nostalgia, action-packed finale, and especially Fox’s charismatic central performance as the kid who has to act as cupid for his own parents, lest he never be born. Many of the film’s plot devices, set pieces, and quotes – the DeLorean itself, the ‘flux capacitor’ that makes time travel possible, Doc’s repeated exclamation of “great scott” – have entered the American cultural lexicon, while Marty’s epic skateboard chase round Hill Valley’s central plaza has been recognized by many as a major catalyst in the development of the sport as a whole. Personally speaking, it’s one of my all-time favorite films, a classic which is consistently entertaining, even after thirty years.
Much like Robert Zemeckis, prior to the release of Back to the Future, Alan Silvestri was not particularly well known. He was generally considered to be a TV composer, who had written music for the hit cop show CHiPs in the 1970s and early 80s, but whose film work was limited to light synth-pop scores for movies like the aforementioned Romancing the Stone, the Kevin Costner coming-of-age drama Fandango, and the horror anthology movie Cat’s Eye. Everything changed for Silvestri after Back to the Future, which for him acted as a springboard to the Hollywood film music A-list, and cemented his professional collaboration with Zemeckis, a partnership which continues to this day. Writing Back to the Future was a daunting task for Silvestri, who at that point in his career had never written a score for such a large orchestral ensemble, but he was encouraged to do so by Zemeckis in order to impress executive producer Steven Spielberg, who had not been a fan of the score for Romancing the Stone, and was a little skeptical that Silvestri could produce the goods. Thankfully, Silvestri rose to the occasion magnificently, and wrote what is now considered one of his seminal works, and one of the most beloved scores of the entire decade.
The score is built around several recurring ideas and motifs, but the score doesn’t actually get going until quite some way into the film, as much of the first reel is scored with songs. A twinkling, glassy motif for the concept of time travel and the DeLorean itself is introduced (appropriately) in “DeLorean Reveal,” and becomes more strident and caper-like in the subsequent “Einstein Disintegrated,” which also introduces the scatterbrained musical identity for Doc Brown himself, a mass of hooting woodwinds and jumpy rhythms as unruly as the mad scientist’s hair. The intimidating snare drum tattoo for the Libyan terrorists in “‘85 Twin Pines Mall” eventually gives way to the first performance of the familiar main theme, with it’s flashy fanfares and heroic aspect, in the second half of that cue, as Marty races around the deserted parking lot, primed to hit 88 miles per hour and begin his adventures in time.
The main theme, taken in its entirety, is now very familiar, but when you listen to the score more closely, it becomes apparent that Silvestri was very clever in how he adapted the theme and used it throughout the score in fragments. There is both an A-phrase and a B-phrase part of the theme – one ascending, one descending – but also smaller three-and-four note allusions to both phrases, which Silvestri uses regularly to invoke magic, mystery, and a sense of mischief. The fact that a theme with this sort of extended melodic line can be broken down and used as sub-motifs of itself is testament to Silvestri’s great skill and intellectual application in this regard.
Once the action shifts to 1955, Silvestri ramps up both the mystery quotient, and the sense of rose-tinted nostalgia. Both the time travel motif and the B-phrase of the main theme anchor “Peabody Barn/Marty Ditches DeLorean,” while allusions to the A-phrase appear in little three-note snatches for muted brass in “‘55 Town Square,” and on lilting woodwinds in “Lorraine’s Bedroom” – an inverted oedipal nightmare of epic proportions.
The time motif features heavily in much of the score’s middle third, especially cues such as “Retrieve DeLorean,” “1.21 Jigowatts,” “The Picture” and “Picture Fades,” as Doc and Marty try to intellectually solve Marty’s temporal problems and come up with a solution to send him home. The way Silvestri plays the time motif in double-counterpoint to both Doc’s helter-skelter theme and a skewed version of the main theme in “1.21 Jigowatts” is especially impressive. Elsewhere, a more sentimental version of the main theme’s B-phrase for woodwinds and Hollywood strings speaks to the enduring friendship between Doc and Marty, most notably during “Marty’s Letter,” “It’s Been Educational,” and the relief-filled “‘85 Lone Pines Mall,” which revisits some of the musical ideas heard in its counterpart from earlier in the score, but ends on a much more positive note.
One of the score’s two big action sequences, “Skateboard Chase,” features a prominent extended performance of the main theme, and is often underpinned by a syncopated piano idea that accompanies school bully Biff Tannen and his increasing dislike for Marty. The syncopated piano also features strongly in the two “George to the Rescue” cues, to illustrate Biff’s looming presence in the lives of all the McFly clan, while in “Tension/The Kiss,” the booming percussion and dissonant string writing eventually gives way to a triumphant explosion of romance between the teenage beauty queen and her knight in a white tuxedo. Two pieces of period specific source music – “Marvin Be-Bop” and “Goodnight Marty” – are interspersed within this sequence. They are fun and authentic, and show another side to Silvestri’s compositional acumen, but they do break the flow of the album somewhat, and I usually program them out.
The film’s ten-minute epic conclusion, “Clocktower,” ties everything together in a thrilling exercise of tension building and subsequent release. An even more nervous-sounding version of Doc’s theme gives way to an anticipatory, almost militaristic refrain of the A-phrase fragment as Marty begins his journey home, but everything suddenly goes wrong as Doc’s lightning rig becomes unplugged and suddenly he has to scramble to reconnect the wiring. The most breathless and edgy version of Doc’s theme yet accompanies his desperate efforts to reconnect the power; the fabulous interplay between different elements of the percussion section, the gradually rising interpolations of fragments of the main theme, and the stabbing brass pulses, all raise the stakes and leave the audience on the edge of its seat, until the final exultant performance of the main theme leaves you cheering.
With the hindsight of 30 years worth of music to use as a frame of reference, it’s interesting to note how many of the familiar ‘Silvestri-isms’ we all know and love, and which later crop up in scores as varied as Predator and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, appear for the first time here, especially in those action scenes – the staccato muted brass pulses, the echoing and intricately layered percussion, the rolling piano lines that underpin much of the action, the vibrant and prominent glockenspiel. That Silvestri had all these tools in his arsenal at the age of just 35, and that he had such a strong sense of who he was as a composer after just a handful of feature scores, is praiseworthy indeed.
For years, the score for Back to the Future was one of film music’s biggest holy grails. The film’s original soundtrack album, released in 1985 by MCA Records, contained just two Silvestri cues, alongside songs by Huey Lewis and the News, and a number of 50s pieces performed on-screen during the Enchantment Under the Sea dance by the fictional band The Starlighters (notably Michael J. Fox’s rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” which almost literally brings the house down). Other than a few re-recordings and a bootleg of dubious origins, this was all that was available of Silvestri’s music until 2009, when the good people at Intrada Records finally released this 2-CD album of the complete score, using the complete multi-track scoring session masters, and featuring almost 40 minutes of additional music based on the ‘early sessions’ Silvestri led when Eric Stoltz was still headlining the movie. These cues are much more serious in tone, and are interesting from a historical context, but pale in comparison with the iconic tunes Silvestri eventually penned.
Back to the Future is an absolute necessity in any serious film music fan’s collection, not only for it’s warm nostalgia and its legendary theme, but because it marks an important step in Alan Silvestri’s development as a composer. Anyone who grew up watching, or has an affinity for, action movies of the 1980s will likely already know and love this score, and as such a recommendation from me will be moot at this point. For anyone on the fence – don’t hesitate. Back to the Future is one of the best scores of the 1980s, an absolute classic.
Buy the Back to the Future soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- ORIGINAL 1985 SOUNDTRACK ALBUM
- The Power of Love (written by Huey Lewis and Chris Hayes, performed by Huey Lewis and the News) (3:58)
- Time Bomb Town (written and performed by Lindsey Buckingham) (2:48)
- Back to the Future (3:20)
- Heaven Is One Step Away (written and performed by Eric Clapton) (4:13)
- Back in Time (written by Huey Lewis and Chris Hayes, performed by Huey Lewis and the News) (4:22)
- Back to the Future Overture (8:19)
- The Wallflower (Dance with Me Henry) (written by Johnny Otis, Hank Ballard and Etta James, performed by Etta James) (2:45)
- Night Train (written by Oscar Washington, Lewis Simpkins and Jimmy Forrest, performed by Marvin Berry and The Starlighters) (2:17)
- Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine) (written by Curtis Williams, Jesse Belvin and Gaynel Hodge, performed by Marvin Berry and The Starlighters) (3:02)
- Johnny B. Goode (written by Chuck Berry, performed by Marty McFly and the Starlighters) (3:06)
- EXPANDED 2009 INTRADA SCORE-ONLY RELEASE
- Logo (0:20)
- DeLorean Reveal (0:46)
- Einstein Disintegrated (1:22)
- ’85 Twin Pines Mall (4:43)
- Peabody Barn/Marty Ditches DeLorean (3:09)
- ’55 Town Square (1:18)
- Lorraine’s Bedroom (0:47)
- Retrieve DeLorean (1:15)
- 1.21 Jigowatts (1:37)
- The Picture (1:09)
- Picture Fades (0:17)
- Skateboard Chase (1:39)
- Marty’s Letter (1:20)
- George to the Rescue, Part 1 (0:50)
- Marvin Be-Bop (2:25)
- George To The Rescue, Part 2 (2:34)
- Tension/The Kiss (1:33)
- Goodnight Marty (1:31)
- It’s Been Educational/Clocktower (10:30)
- Helicopter (0:19)
- ’85 Lone Pine Mall (3:46)
- 4 x 4 (0:40)
- Doc Returns (1:14)
- Back To The Future (End Credits) (3:16)
- DeLorean Reveal (0:40) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Einstein Disintegrated (1:25) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Peabody Barn (2:17) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Marty Ditches DeLorean (1:56) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- ’55 Town Square #1 (Trumpet Open) (1:35) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- ’55 Town Square #2 (Trumpet Mute) (1:35) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Retrieve DeLorean 1:16 – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- 1.21 Jigowatts (1:36) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- The Picture (1:08) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Skateboard Chase (1:40) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- George to the Rescue (4:13) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Tension/The Kiss (1:42) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Clocktower (11:02) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- ’85 Lone Pine Mall (3:50) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Doc Returns (1:19) – Alternate Early Session Bonus Cue
- Ling Ting Ring (2:01) – Unused Source Cue
Running Time: 37 minutes 26 seconds (Original Soundtrack)
Running Time: 89 minutes 08 seconds (Intrada Special Edition)
MCA Records MCAD-6144 (1985)
Intrada Special Collection ISC-116 (1985/2009)
Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by James Campbell. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Score produced by Alan Silvestri. Album produced by Douglass Fake.