Musings About Music In Film

Back to the Future

bttf_poster It might be a highly biased opinion but 1980’s were great for blockbuster movies. While the concept itself was born out of the success of Jaws and Star Wars, it wasn't until the next decade that various studios would frantically start producing countless (better or worse) tentpole films in order to turn a profit. Some of those failed miserably (Krull, anyone?), others soared spectacularly.  Back to the Future was one of those iconic franchises that succeeded and managed to secure its immortality . The combination of a s-f adventure and comedy doesn’t seem like the most successful combination in order to achieve massive box office success but the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (with the necessary help from Steven Spielberg) did just that.  The time travelling adventures of Doc Brown and Marty McFly sparked the imagination of an entire generation and 30 years later they seem to be as popular as ever.

Back to the Future’s good reputation extends into its music, which remains among the most famous scores of the 1980’s. For a major blockbuster, the film isn’t really heavily spotted at all: out of 116 minutes of running time only less than 50 minutes contain original music. Especially by today’s standards, it looks incredibly sparse. That is probably why Silvestri added more material while preparing the live to projections concert performances for the 30th anniversary earlier this year (which, inexplicably, also contained material from the sequels).

The main theme, of course, is what everybody remembers. This bold brassy melody still remains Alan Silvestri’s finest achievement to date and it gets played in countless concerts around the world. The idea is hinted at early on in ‘Logo’. Silvestri derives several variations, like the gentle and mysterious one in ‘Lorraine’s Bedroom’ and quick wacky comedic woodwind statement in ‘1.21 Jigowatts’. But it doesn’t get a full treatment until the ‘Skateboard Chase”, in which we finally hear the melody in full glory. ‘Back to the Future (End Credits’) presents the full concert presentation that everybody knows and loves.

All the secondary material is primarily focused on Doc Brown’s antics and it’s mostly a lighthearted comedic scherzo material that portrays his lovable child-like personality. With an obligatory pinch of madness, of course. The listeners can find this material in cues such as ‘Einstein Disintegrated’, ‘Marty Ditches DeLorean’ and ‘Doc Returns’. Silvestri also composed an obsessive rhythmic simple motif for Biff Tannen (‘George to the Rescue’) that also gets used as a motoric idea in action music (‘Skateboard Chase’).

‘85 Twink Pines Mall’ serves as a curious precursor to Silvestri’s own Predator score from 1987 with it’s steady and tense martial percussive determination. ‘Tension - The Kiss” features the swelling and hilarious moment of unabashed romance when Marty finally manages to bring his parents together. Silvestri also had a chance to compose some source music for the 1950’s setting of the story (‘Marvin Be-Bop’ and “Goodnight Marty’).

The centerpiece of this score is, obviously, the entire finale. Silvestri composed a 10-minute piece for the film’s climax and it’s a real showstopper. It is when all the elements finally come together in one neat action-driven sequence. Many tracks leading up to this point are quite brief but this section is where composer finally gives us an extended satisfying highlight. There is a great sense of anticipation in the first part, in which Silvestri’s trademark snare drums build excitement. The second part pays off and we get several heroic and triumphant statements of the main material.

It’s interesting that Silvestri had a rare opportunity to re-record large chunks of his score after initial scoring sessions were completed. Apparently, Steven Spielberg loved the main theme and insisted on its bigger presence. Both Silvestri and Zemeckis used this to review the score and give it a slightly lighter touch. The original felt a bit darker and heavier in comparison. The original intentions can be heard on the bonus disc of 2009 Intrada album (now out of print).

It might be hard to believe but it took an entire 24 years to release this score in its entirety. The original soundtrack album contained only the end credit piece and the remaining material was a major holy grail for fans. A considerable portion of the score was later re-recorded by Royal Scottish National Orchestra and John Debney for a Back to the Future Trilogy compilation from Varese Sarabande. As it turns out, much of the score heard on that album was actually those alternate early versions of many cues, not their final film versions. Plus, there were many complaints about the performances, which many felt were too slow in crucial moments.

Finally, Intrada compiled the entire score session material, along with all alternates, for a 2-disc world premiere release in 2009. The album was very popular and only went out of print due to licensing limitations. The label, however, managed to secure the new release of the first disc of that set and Alan Silevestri's score is yet again available to the public, even if it completely omits a second disc with alternate early versions. The score is also available from Mondo as a gorgeously produced vinyl as well as a digital download (along with two other sequels).

All in all, this is Alan Silvestri’s biggest work and he never quite managed to come close to the success he’s had with Back to the Future films. While his writing later became richer and more sophisticated, the magic couldn't have been recaptured nearly to the same extent. The main theme itself outdoes everything he’s composed afterwards. And that includes all the other collaborations with Robert Zemeckis. The newly re-released album (vinyl, CD and digital) is therefore a must for any collector. And don’t forget about the new sequel score releases while you’re at it.

-Karol Krok

Here is a concert suite from the Back to the Future Trilogy that Alan Silvestri prepared for a Hollywood in Vienna concert (2011):


Visit the official Back to the Future music website

Back to the Future is available on CD (from Intrada) and vinyl (Mondo)