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



Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Following the massive success of Back to the Future in 1985, director Robert Zemeckis shot a pair of sequels back-to-back, both of which continued 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. Back to the Future II was less of an icon than the original, but has since proven prescient with its vision of a dystopian alternate world where Marty’s nemesis Biff Tannen becomes a Donald Trump-like multi-billionaire. The ending of the second movie saw the 1985 version of Doc, and the DeLorean, being hit by lightning and sent back in time to Hill Valley in 1885, when it was a newly-build town in the Old West. However, Marty discovers some devastating news about his friend’s fate, and manages to convince the 1955 version of Doc to send him back in time too. Marty finds Doc happily working as a blacksmith, unaware of his future, but before long the pair starts getting into trouble, with Marty encountering both his own great-grandparents, and running afoul of one of Biff’s ancestors, the ruthless gunslinger Mad Dog Tannen. With time running out to save the day and finally return home, one final issue arises when Doc falls in love with Clara Clayton, a beautiful schoolteacher played by Mary Steenburgen.

The whole thing is a fun, exciting romp that blends contemporary comedy and 1980s attitudes with a whole host of exciting action, most of which pokes fun at Hollywood western tropes, especially the films of Clint Eastwood. Fox is as charismatic as always, and Tom Wilson is a blast chewing the scenery as Mad Dog, but perhaps the best performance comes from Lloyd, who is finally given the chance to play a romantic lead against the lovely, optimistic, intellectually curious Steenburgen. The conclusive action set piece on a runaway train is terrific, and on the whole the movie is one of my favorite action-adventure-comedies of the period – a perfect way to end the Back to the Future series.

The score for Back to the Future III was, of course, by Alan Silvestri, who by 1990 was firmly established as a Hollywood A-lister off the back of scores like Predator, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Abyss, and the two previous installments in this series. Within a few years of this film opening Silvestri would also write such career landmark works as Father of the Bride, The Bodyguard, and Forrest Gump; this really was his golden period. What Back to the Future III also did for Silvestri was give him the opportunity to write his first ever classic western score, in the style of Elmer Bernstein, Jerome Moross, and all those other legendary greats of the genre. The new Western theme Silvestri penned was very briefly teased at the end of the second film, but here it is the center of attention, sitting proudly alongside many of the familiar themes from the first two installments – the iconic main theme with its deconstructed A-phrase and B-phrase elements, the sentimental variation on the theme for Marty and Doc’s friendship, the twinkling ‘time travel motif,’ and the individual themes for Doc and Biff.

Also new to this score is a beautiful love theme for Doc and Clara, a wonderful piece of classic full-orchestral romance that is now considered a vintage Silvestri melody. It’s a three part piece which has three distinct melodic ideas: one that seems to represent the character of Clara specifically, one which underscores their sweet and shy courtship, and one which seems to act as a ‘family theme’ for their potential life together in the future (or the past). Most of the time the three melodic ideas are performed separately, but when experienced together the whole thing is just lovely. It has echoes of the themes Silvestri would later go on to write for scores like Forrest Gump and Contact, and has a gentle and longing quality that is just superb. The orchestrations are also interesting, often focusing on quieter instruments – harps, solo flutes, soft strings – and only really rising to fully orchestral heights during the score’s finale.

The “Main Title” begins with a truncated reprise of the music from the final scene in Back to the Future II (“Burn the Book/He’s Gone”) for the moment when Doc and the DeLorean are struck by lightning and sent back in time; this is followed by the first appearance of two of the score’s love theme melodies: the first at 1:20, a beautiful, hopeful melody for strings and woodwinds, and then the second at 2:05, orchestrated quite sparsely for solo flute, solo harp, and then a flute-and-harp duet. These two love themes are featured prominently throughout the score, as the relationship between Doc and Clara forms a cornerstone plot point, and several cues are especially noteworthy in this regard. “At First Sight” underscores the first true meeting between Doc and Clara, after he saves her from certain death by stopping her runaway horse-and-buggy from falling into a ravine. Both melodies receive lovely performances, and this time the light, pretty writing for harps and woodwinds is accompanied by swelling romantic strings. “Goodbye Clara” sees the first theme arranged for warm oboes, which are perhaps a little sad and regretful in tone, but these are interrupted by some anguished orchestral chords and references to the time travel theme, which underscore the argument between Doc and Clara when she refuses to believe that he’s from the future. “The Kiss” is, of course, the most romantic of the lot, and is especially notable for introducing the third part of the Love Theme at 0:55, a gorgeous melody arranged for rich and sonorous cellos.

Silvestri plays up the Wild West setting of the film by adopting the mannerisms of a number of classic Western composers from Hollywood’s golden age. “Hill Valley” is built around a deconstructed version of this new Western theme, and is initially filled with uneasy-sounding tremolo strings that give the whole piece a sinister edge. A massive fanfare accompanies the vista reveal of 1855 Hill Valley, but then Silvestri engages in a little bit of light comedy – clip-clop piano rhythms, harmonica chords, and a clichéd ‘old western vibe’ that is clearly playing around with the musical essence of Morricone’s spaghetti westerns.

“The Showdown ,” which underscores the gunfight between Marty and Mad Dog at high noon on the main street, also follows Morricone’s path, but is much more stark and abstract, and is filled with menacing piano crashes, woodwind flutters, string sustains, and percussion rumbles. “Indians” underscores the scene where Marty finds himself driving the DeLorean amid a cavalry charge of native warriors pursued by American soldiers, all on horseback. Here Silvestri riffs on the stereotypical ‘Indian’ music from classic westerns of the Hollywood era, in a piece filled with heavy percussion rhythms, dark brass fanfares, and terrific string writing. Finally, “We’re Out of Gas” offers one of the score’s few huge statements of the full Western theme, rousing and bold.

The rest of the score is action, and it’s all terrific. Most of it is based around the Back to the Future main theme and its various deconstructions, as well as moments from the Love Theme and the Western theme, but it’s how Silvestri structures things that is most impressive. Silvestri has a very specific action style, which evolved through scores like Predator and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which shouldn’t sound alike, but they do. Silvestri has an idiosyncratic way of constructing his action, with layers of instruments performing staccato rhythmic ideas that move around the orchestra from strings to brass, augmented by heavy piano clusters and complicated percussion patterns. He favors specific chord progressions and instrumental combinations, and much of the writing here is wholly rooted in that clearly identifiable style. What’s even more clever, though, is how he places his thematic ideas into these sequences. He doesn’t so much play the theme as he does provide the essence of it: fleeting glimpses and fragments of different melodic ideas that keep coming back repeatedly, enough to be recognizable, but never fully realizing the entire melodic line. It’s clever stuff, because it makes you anticipate a resolution that never comes – until it does, and then it’s just magical.

For example, “The Hanging” offers imposing brasses, surging strings, and heavy percussion – including prominent timpanis and xylophones – around a Western-flavored version of Biff’s theme as a new identity for Mad Dog Tannen. In “Doc to the Rescue” Silvestri uses a thrilling version of the main Back to the Future theme for the scene where Doc intercepts Clara’s runaway horse. Later, in “Wake Up Juice,” both the new Love Theme and the main Back to the Future theme combine with some comedy woodwinds for a scene involving a not-quite drunken Doc, lamenting the loss of Clara. However, by far the most impressive sequence is the 12-minute finale, “The Train,” which is broken down into three smaller cues: “A Science Experiment,” “It’s Clara,” and “Point of No Return”. This sequence showcases Silvestri at his action music best, blending thematic statements of all the main ideas into a pulsating chase on a runaway locomotive.

There are so many highlights that it would be impossible to mention them all, but I’m especially fond of the heroic statement of the main theme 2:48 into “It’s Clara,” and the way the new Western theme is blended into the fabric of the cue during its final minute, accompanied by a bed of rolling pianos. In the sensational opening part of “Point of No Return” Silvestri somehow manages to combine the Love theme with deconstructed chords from the Main theme as part of the action, while later in the same cue there is a wholly sensational sequence that begins at 1:51, a juggernaut of relentless forward momentum, where at least three different motifs are passed between brass, piano, strings, and snares, contrapuntally. At several points Silvestri switches from a major to a minor key, which adds a palpable sense of suspense and danger to the whole thing.

The song “Doubleback,” which was written by members of the rock band ZZ Top and arranged by Silvestri, is a fun of piece source music played on-screen by the band at the Hill Valley festival, and features toe-tapping guitars, fiddles, and banjos. The conclusion to the whole thing comes in “Doc Returns,” where the finally reunited Marty and Jennifer realize Doc’s fate. It begins with a slightly subdued statement of the twinkly Time Travel motif, and then moves into a warm and sentimental string-and-woodwind version of the Main Theme that is filled with tenderness. Just before the one minute mark Silvestri moves into the score’s most prominent statement of the new Family Theme, wholesome and inviting, switches to the A-Phrase of the Love Theme, moves back to the Family theme, and then builds up to a rousing and rambunctious finale including the Main Theme and a final fanfare flourish. Eventually the “End Credits” offers a terrific medley of everything the score has to offer, presenting the Western theme, the Back to the Future fanfare, all three parts of the Love Theme, and the full Main Theme with as much power as the orchestra can muster.

As was the case with Back to the Future Part II, Part III was released on a 45-minute score album by Varese Sarabande at the time the film came out, and this is the album I have reviewed here. My biggest bone of contention with the album is the sequencing, as it separates the big action finale (“The Train”) into three parts that do not run chronologically, and therefore the listener is robbed of the chance to fully appreciate the building tension and superb action scoring Silvestri created to underscore this terrific sequence. This was all that was available of Silvestri’s music until 2015, when Varese released a 2-CD deluxe album of the complete score, featuring more than 50 minutes of additional music and bonus cues, arranged in movie chronological order. Most of the extended pieces are similar in tone and texture to the rest of the score, so will probably only be of interest to completists, although some may also find the numerous source cues of old west period saloon songs interesting from a historical point of view.

Back to the Future III is a tremendous conclusion to what will, for me, always be Alan Silvestri’s best cinematic franchise – and, yes, I do consider these scores to be generally superior to his Avengers work. The multitude of iconic themes present in the trilogy as a whole is excellent, the way Silvestri cleverly changes and manipulates them to suit the narrative is impressive, and the action music that litters all three works remains some of the most enjoyable of his entire career. Not only that, this score specifically allowed Silvestri to write one of his all-time best western themes and one of his all-time best love themes, and that’s saying something for a man who has as many gorgeous love themes under his belt as he does, and considering that his career work in the western genre also contains such excellent scores as The Quick and the Dead and The Mexican. Overall, the entire Back to the Future trilogy is peak Alan Silvestri, and any self-respecting film music aficionado should have all three of them in their collection.

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

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:05)
  • It’s Clara (The Train, Part II) (4:33)
  • Hill Valley (2:20)
  • The Hanging (1:40)
  • At First Sight (3:12)
  • Indians (1:10)
  • Goodbye Clara (2:57)
  • Doc Returns (2:50)
  • Point of No Return (The Train, Part III) (3:45)
  • The Future Isn’t Written (3:35)
  • The Showdown (1:28)
  • Doc to the Rescue (0:51)
  • The Kiss (1:51)
  • We’re Out of Gas (1:15)
  • Wake Up Juice (1:11)
  • A Science Experiment? (The Train, Part I) (3:05)
  • Doubleback (written by Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, and Alan Silvestri, performed by ZZ Top) (1:30)
  • End Credits (4:34)
  • Back to Back/Court House (1:25)
  • Main Title (2:43)
  • Into The Mine/Tombstone/It’s Me (3:18)
  • Warmed Up (1:30)
  • Indians (1:10)
  • Safe and Sound (0:42)
  • Hill Valley (2:20)
  • The Hanging (1:42)
  • We’re Out of Gas (1:17)
  • There Is No Bridge/Doc to the Rescue (1:26)
  • At First Sight (3:17)
  • Yellow (0:47)
  • The Kiss (1:57)
  • You Talkin’ To Me? (0:36)
  • The Future Isn’t Written (3:36)
  • Goodbye Clara (3:02)
  • What’s Up Doc/Marty Gallops/To The Future (1:45)
  • Wake Up Juice (1:12)
  • Callin’ You Out/Count Off (1:59)
  • The Showdown/The Kick (2:13)
  • A Science Experiment (The Train – Part I) (3:11)
  • It’s Clara (The Train – Part II) (4:36)
  • Point of no Return (The Train – Part III) (3:49)
  • It’s Destroyed/Back to the Girlfriend/It Erased (3:41)
  • Doc Returns (2:52)
  • End Credits (4:01)
  • Back to Back/Court House (Alternate) (0:33) – Bonus
  • I’m Back/Main Title (Alternate) (2:49) – Bonus
  • Into the Mine/Tombstone (Alternate) (3:19) – Bonus
  • Warmed Up (Alternate) (1:47) – Bonus
  • Indians (Alternate) (1:20) – Bonus
  • The Hanging (Alternate) (1:44) – Bonus
  • Goodbye Clara (Alternate Segment) (0:52) – Bonus
  • Count Off (Alternate) (1:30) – Bonus
  • The Kick (Alternate) (0:44) – Bonus
  • Doc Returns (Alternate) (2:40) – Bonus
  • Clock Dedication/Battle Cry of Freedom (Source Music) (1:03) – Bonus
  • Doubleback – Extended Version (written by Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, Frank Beard, and Alan Silvestri, performed by ZZ Top) (3:12) – Bonus
  • Turkey in the Straw (Source Music) (3:00) – Bonus
  • My Darling Clementine (Source Music) (2:51) – Bonus
  • Saloon Piano Medley (Source Music) (1:44) – Bonus
  • Arkansas Traveler (Source Music) (2:49) – Bonus
  • Devil’s Dream (Source Music) (2:48) – Bonus
  • Pop Goes The Weasel (Source Music) (2:59) – Bonus
  • Virginia Reel (Tip-Top) (Source Music) (2:57) – Bonus
  • I’m Back (Alternate No. 2) (Source Music) (1:07) – Bonus
  • Into The Mine (Alternate No. 2) (1:53) – Bonus
  • Indians (Alternate No. 2) (1:11) – Bonus
  • Doc Returns (Alternate No. 2) (3:02) – Bonus

Running Time: 44 minutes 52 seconds (Original Soundtrack)
Running Time: 108 minutes 01 seconds (Varese Special Edition)

Varese Sarabande VSD-5272 (1990)
Varese Sarabande CD Club VCL-10151159 (1990/2015)

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. Expanded album produced by Robert Townson and Mike Matessino.

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