Home > Reviews > BACK TO THE FUTURE, PART II – Alan Silvestri


December 5, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The enormous critical, cultural, and financial success of Back to the Future in 1985 meant that a sequel was inevitable. In the fall of 1989 director Robert Zemeckis returned with the first of not one but two further installments, shot back-to-back and ready to continue the time traveling exploits of Marty McFly, the suburban kid from 1980s California, and his eccentric inventor friend Doc Brown, who built a time machine out of a DeLorean. The ending of the original movie saw Doc picking up Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer literally the following morning after their adventure ended, and whisking them away in his now-upgraded flying automobile, promising them that “where they’re going they don’t need roads.” Where they end up going is the year 2015, to fix a problem with Marty and Jennifer’s future children – however, while they are there, Marty’s now-elderly arch-rival Biff Tannen contrives to steal the time machine himself, resulting in the creation of an alternate-timeline 1985 where Biff is a sleazy multi-billionaire and Marty’s stepfather. To fix things, Marty and Doc must travel even further back in time, once again to 1955, where they must re-restore the original timeline without screwing up the courtship between Marty’s parents Lorraine and George, which is happening at the same time!

It’s a complicated film, plot wise, but it remains a ton of fun, mostly thanks to the likeable cast – Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas Wilson, Elisabeth Shue – and a whole heap of hilarious retro-futurism for the 2015 setting, which was 25 years in the future when the film was made, but now mostly looks quaint and dated from the vantage point of the year 2019. We do have hover-boards and drones, and the Chicago Cubs did win the world series, but Max Spielberg has (thankfully) not gone on to direct Jaws 19. Similarly, the depiction of the alternate-timeline Biff Tannen as a gaudy Donald Trump-like huckster is disturbingly prescient, but this isn’t the time or place to get into these sorts of political shenanigans.

Having been a relatively un-tested newcomer when he was hired to score the original Back to the Future, by 1989 Alan Silvestri was the veteran composer of such outstanding works as Predator, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Abyss, and was firmly established on the Hollywood A-List. As such, his return to the Back to the Future universe was basically a given, and he grasped the opportunity to revisit the franchise that made his career with both hands. The score for Back to the Future II uses all the familiar main themes from the original score, sometimes expanded and adapted and given a new lease of life, and augments them with a small number of new themes that mostly represent the alternate 1985 and the terrible new version of Biff Tannen that inhabits it.

Silvestri’s constant use of the main themes is like being visited by an old friend. The overall main theme is present in abundance, always full of flashy fanfares and heroic ebullience, as are the ascending A-phrase, the descending B-phrase, and the deconstructed smaller allusions to both phrases which Silvestri uses regularly to invoke magic and mystery. The sentimental variation on the main theme that Silvestri uses to evoke the tremendous friendship between Marty and Doc also crops up from time to time, reminding listeners that, at its core, this is a story about an unlikely but enduring friendship. Also back is the twinkling, glassy motif for the concept of time travel and the DeLorean itself, the scatterbrained musical identity for Doc Brown, and the syncopated piano idea for Biff Tannen that usually makes itself felt in the action sequences. The main new idea is a dark and menacing 4-note brass idea which represents the ‘Alternate 1985’ and the version of Biff that exists in that timeline, who poses an existential thread to both Marty and Doc.

Everything kicks off with the superb “Main Title,” which presents a suitably enormous statement of the Main Theme with a noticeably beefier brass section and more emphasis on the intensity of the timpanis in the percussion. The piece also appears to contain a new middle section which underpins the theme with a more staccato snare drum rhythm and some creatively florid string runs. As Marty, Doc, and Jennifer arrive in the year 2015 “The Future” is revealed in a cue which jumps between the inquisitive, staccato xylophones of the Time Travel Motif, the playful anarchy of Doc’s Theme, and a muted version of the Main Theme, all underpinned with heavy percussion, cymbals, and ominous horn chords, which make the whole thing feel nervous, edgy, and jumpy. This is a dangerous time for Marty and Doc, who must solve the problems with Marty and Jennifer’s future before anyone really knows they are there.

Unfortunately, as usually happens, things go wrong, and before long Marty finds himself in a “Hoverboard Chase” with Biff Tannen’s grandson Griff, whose gang chases him round Hill Valley’s main square on floating hoverboards. Silvestri’s music here is an intentional echo of the Skateboard Chase sequence from the first movie, in which the Main Theme is surrounded by an array of frantic, energetic action music. As always, Silvestri’s action music is terrific, and clearly identifiable through his personal stylistics – 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 glockenspiels and xylophones. This is top form Silvestri, and it may even surpass the action music from the original film in terms of depth and intricacy; the hints of jazz in the string flourishes are clearly something he learned writing action music for Roger Rabbit.

The new motif for the Alternate Timeline Biff appears in “A Flying DeLorean?,” an echoing 4-note motif for brass which begins to emerge towards the end of the cue as 2015 Biff first notices Doc’s DeLorean and realizes what he has done. Some of the statements of the new theme are quite dark and imposing, with heavy brass and piano writing that foreshadows some of the melodrama Silvestri would later explore more deeply in the score for Death Becomes Her. Further statements of the Alternate Timeline Biff motif abound in cues like “My Father!” and “Alternate 1985,” the latter of which sees it accompanied by bending, twisting strings that underscore the revelation of what happened to George McFly in this universe. Everything comes to a head in “If They Ever Did” where Biff pursues Marty onto the roof of his hotel intending to kill him; here, the Alternate Timeline Biff motif is offset against the rhythmic ideas and sound palette of the Hoverboard Chase, but with a much more intense and murderous intent. However, Marty is saved in the nick of time by Doc in the DeLorean, and a heroic outburst of the Main Theme illustrates their need to go back in time to 1955 again and make things right.

“The Book” underscores the extended escapade around Hill Valley High School during the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance – again! – as Marty tries to retrieve the copy of Gray’s Sports Almanac from 1955 Biff without being seen by his parents, or the versions of Marty and Doc from the original film that are also there. Silvestri takes the opportunity to write lots of sneaky caper music, where numerous allusions to all the main themes are accompanied by playful woodwinds, brass textures, string sustains, rumbling pianos and relentless percussion. The warm statement of the Friendship Variation on the Main Theme is welcome indeed, and the whole thing concludes with some more of that tremendous action material, which culminates in the sensational “Tunnel Chase”. This is the second of the score’s main action sequences and it’s just superb. It again takes its cue from the Skateboard Chase music from the first film, and it is absolutely thrilling; it jumps between brass clusters and precise percussion hits, string phrases, and woodwind trills, all awash in the familiar Silvestri sound. The magnificent syncopated pianos return as Biff, in his tank-like 1955 Ford, tries to ram Marty off his hoverboard, only for Doc to save the day again in his flying DeLorean, accompanied by a heroic explosion of the Main Theme.

There is a sense of anticipation as Marty and Doc prepare to return to 1985, but not before Marty has a chance to “Burn The Book” – the book in question being the copy of Gray’s Sports Almanac that caused all the problems in the first place. The storm that plays such an important role in the finale of the first film strikes again, and the same relentless energy that made the ‘Clocktower’ sequence so breathless is again present here. Statements of the main theme are underpinned with relentless snare drums, and the whole thing builds to a chaotic finale as the DeLorean is hit by lightning and disappears before Doc and Marty can return home. Almost immediately, a curious statement of the Time Motif accompanies the unexpected appearance of a “Western Union” delivery man who hands Marty a letter – from Doc, who explains that the lightning strike sent him back to the year 1885. Silvestri underscores this revelation with a statement of the Friendship Version of the Main Theme, warm, nostalgic, wistful, a little humorous, before the whole thing becomes resolute, determined, and leads into the set-up for Back to the Future Part III. The conclusive “End Title” is a massive fully orchestral statement of the main theme, interspersed with quotes from “Burn the Book” and “Tunnel Chase,” and is a thoroughly satisfying way to end the score.

Unlike the score for the original Back to the Future, Back to the Future Part II was released on a 45-minute score album by MCA Records at the time the film came out, and this is the album I have reviewed here. This was all that was available of Silvestri’s music until 2015, when Intrada Records released a 2-CD album of the complete score, featuring more than 50 minutes of additional music and bonus cues. Most of the extended pieces are similar in tone and texture to the rest of the score, and will really only be of interest to completists, but one cue is a standout: “The West” is a 57-second burst of classic cowboy music, which introduces the absolutely magnificent Western theme Silvestri would go on to use throughout the score of Back to the Future III in 1990.

Back to the Future II is a thoroughly enjoyable score which builds on the outstanding and now-iconic themes Silvestri wrote for the first film, while introducing a brand new dark theme for the dystopian version of 1985 Hill Valley that remains in the neon-lit breast-enhanced nightmares of anyone who loves these films. The action music is notably excellent, especially as Silvestri clearly used his four years of interim experience to flesh out the orchestrations he provided for the first film’s chase sequences, and make them bolder here. Fans of the series will love it, and fans of Alan Silvestri’s most outstanding writing of the 1980s and 1990s will want to check it out too.

Buy the Back to the Future Part II soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (2:21)
  • The Future (5:23)
  • Hoverboard Chase (2:49)
  • A Flying DeLorean? (4:31)
  • My Father! (2:04)
  • Alternate 1985 (3:05)
  • If They Ever Did (3:58)
  • Pair O’Docs (1:27)
  • The Book (4:50)
  • Tunnel Chase (5:21)
  • Burn The Book (2:26)
  • Western Union (1:52)
  • End Title (4:38)
  • Back to Back/It’s Your Kids (2:38)
  • Main Title (3:19)
  • The Future (5:23)
  • Chicken/Hoverboard Chase (3:12)
  • A Flying DeLorean? (4:29)
  • I’m In The Future/Biff Steals DeLorean (2:12)
  • Chicken Needles/Jenn Sees Jenn (2:55)
  • Biff’s World/27th Floor (2:08)
  • My Father (2:04)
  • Alternate 1985 (3:04)
  • Gray’s Sports Almanac/If They Ever Did (4:26)
  • Something Inconspicuous (1:33)
  • You’ll Never Lose/Old New DeLorean (3:18)
  • Pair O’Docs (1:26)
  • The Book (4:49)
  • Nobody/Tunnel Chase (5:45)
  • Burn the Book (2:24)
  • He’s Gone (0:41)
  • Western Union (1:52)
  • I’m Back/End Logo (0:59)
  • The West (0:57)
  • End Credits (4:38)
  • Back To Back (Alternate) (1:02) – Bonus
  • Main Title (Alternate) (3:54) – Bonus
  • The Future (Alternate) (5:23) – Bonus
  • Hoverboard Chase (Alternate) (2:50) – Bonus
  • A Flying DeLorean? (Alternate) (4:31) – Bonus
  • Biff’s World (Alternate) (1:34) – Bonus
  • If They Ever Did (Alternate Segment) (2:06) – Bonus
  • You’ll Never Lose (Alternate) (2:52) – Bonus
  • Western Union (Alternate #1) (2:04) – Bonus
  • I’m Back (Alternate #1) (0:34) – Bonus
  • Western Union (Alternate #2) (1:59) – Bonus
  • I’m Back (Alternate #2) (0:25) – Bonus
  • End Logo (Alternate) (0:17) – Bonus
  • The West (Alternate) (1:17) – Bonus
  • End Credits (Alternate) (4:38) – Bonus

Running Time: 44 minutes 45 seconds (Original Soundtrack)
Running Time: 99 minutes 38 seconds (Intrada Special Edition)

MCA Records MCAD-6361 (1989)
Intrada Special Collection ISC-336 (1989/2015)

Music composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. Orchestrations by James Campbell, Alan Silvestri and David Bifano. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Kenneth Karman. Score produced by Alan Silvestri. Expanded album produced by Douglass Fake and Mike Matessino.

  1. Marco Ludema
    December 5, 2019 at 10:38 am

    I recommend listening to parts I and II back to back, they work the best as one long album.

  2. Jamie Path
    December 5, 2019 at 5:04 pm

    I know this is a hobby for you, but I have a request. I’m not a maniac, so if you ignore me, no hard feelings, but I really do find a learn quite a bit from your reviews, and well… I think it’d be interesting if you did one for George Bruns’ Sleeping Beauty, especially due to the scores’ origin, derived largely from a ballet. I’ve always had an embarrassing difficulty recognizing the leitmotifs that I know it has, and it would doubtlessly help with that too- but largely I think it would be informative, fascinating, and a delight to read a review from you, regarding a childhood favorite.

  3. Dirk Jansen
    December 6, 2019 at 4:32 am

    The MCA album suffers from dry sound where the Intrada release upgraded the sound significantly. Therefore it is, in my opinion the best of the three. Not only that but one of the best scores of Silvestri period.

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