My last post was a little “heavy,” so today I’ve decided to discuss Alan Silvestri’s madcap score for the 80s blockbuster Back to the Future [BTTF]. The entire movie is one major spoiler, so please watch it before you read this post. Music aside, a strong, comedic cast lead by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd makes this film memorable.
For those who need a recap, BTTF tells the story of seventeen-year-old Marty McFly (Fox), who spends his days skateboarding and hanging out with his girlfriend Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells). When his friend Doc Brown (Lloyd), a mad scientist complete with cottonball-textured hair, invents a time machine out of a DeLorean, Marty travels from 1985 to 1955. He runs into his teenaged parents, George and Lorraine (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) and accidentally stops them from falling in love, thereby preventing his birth. Marty enlists the younger Doc Brown to help his parents find romance and save his future life. There are countless complications along the way as the bully Biff (Thomas Wilson) antagonizes everybody within reach and Lorraine unwittingly becomes infatuated with her own son.
The score behind the story is all down to Alan Silvestri, critically acclaimed composer for movies as different as The Avengers and Forrest Gump. For BTTF, Silvestri relies heavily on leitmotifs to help advance the plot. In filmmaking, a leitmotif is a recurrent musical theme that a composer intends to induce certain emotional responses in the audience. At first, that sounds like some kind of theoretical mumbo jumbo, but the concept is practical. A popular example of a leitmotif is “Luke’s Theme” from the Star Wars franchise. John Williams (the one, the only) uses this theme both in the traditional opening crawl and at times that Luke Skywalker, the main protagonist, demonstrates his heroism. Because of this, the audience begins to either consciously or subliminally associate “Luke’s Theme” with victory. Today, leitmotifs are used worldwide and cross-genre, though they have met opposition as far back as the 1930s. Critic Theodor W. Adorno suggested that the entire concept of subliminal association cheapened music. He scoffed that the only function of leitmotifs in film is to “announce heroes or situations so as to allow the audience to orient itself more easily.” Others disagree, stating that the leitmotif helps develop character and world building.
Whether you like them or not, Alan Silvestri dishes up a healthy serving of leitmotifs in BTTF. He uses them and reuses them liberally. And I mean, liberally. While listening to the soundtrack, I was able to pick out two themes Silvestri uses with almost obscene regularity – the BTTF theme, which is used throughout major plot points, action sequences, and even the DVD menu, and another theme reserved mainly for Doc Brown. Most of the soundtrack listings incorporate at least one of these themes, or even both. Once I realized just how repetitive Silvestri’s score was, I wondered how it became famous. I nearly came to the conclusion that the main reason people (including myself) liked it was because it was so inextricably twined with the success of the movie. But something stopped me. I just couldn’t bring myself to reduce Silvestri to a money-grubbing man rubbing his hands together and looping songs with glee. I believed that something about the BTTF score supported the story, not the other way around. The question was, what?
I dug around for the answer like a dog for a bone. You never know where the “Bonus Features” section on a special edition DVD and hours of internet surfing will take you. I discovered that when discussing the score for BTTF, director Robert Zemeckis kept the set in mind. He thought of BTTF as being full of modest visuals. Hill Valley is just a town in California. Guitars are just guitars. Even the DeLorean is ultimately just a car. Zemeckis wanted the music to counteract the small scale of it all. Along with Silvestri, he decided that the score needed to be big, to demand the audience’s attention, and to reflect old-fashioned movie scores. Because of this, Universal Studios employed 98 musicians to record for the film. According to Silvestri, it was the largest orchestra ever used in the history of the company at the time.
As I demonstrated in my previous blog post, Harry Gregson-Williams’s score for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe succeeds because of his commitment to follow the director. As a result, his music takes on the tone of preexisting scenes. Silvestri’s music does the opposite. It creates tones for the scenes – tones perfectly suited to repetition.
A great example of this is the piece “Skateboard Chase.” It plays during an iconic moment when Marty escapes from Biff and his gang (you can watch the scene here.) The music begins with Doc Brown’s theme as Marty creates a makeshift skateboard, though Doc is not present. This suggests his inventive genius is starting to rub off on Marty, as Silvestri stated that the theme represents the synapses firing in Doc’s brain. The piece segues into a variation of the main theme as Marty zooms down the streets of 1955 Hill Valley, California. Again, it’s nothing that we haven’t heard before, but it lends a sense of madness and mayhem to the scene.
This may not seem to answer the problem of repetition, but hang with me. In another movie, Silvestri’s decision to replay leitmotifs to the Nth degree could have resulted in disaster. Not BTTF. In BTTF, it ties in with the film’s branch of humor, much of which depends on its use of repetitious gags. Some are trivial, such as the transformation of the “Twin Pines Mall” at the start of the film to the “Lone Pine Mall” at the end, and the mentions of Marty’s uncle, “Jailbird Joey.” Others impact the plot directly, such as Doc’s eureka moment, when he falls off the toilet, hits his head, and immediately conceives the means to make time travel possible. The BTTF franchise as a whole expands this concept of repetitious jokes, as BTTF parts 2 and 3 both revisit plot points and recreate scenes from the first movie (and once used archived footage of Crispin Glover without permission, but we’ll let that particular hatchet stay buried.) The main point to consider here is that all of these gags are based on Marty’s ability to time travel. And so, by extension, is the repetition of the score.
Recently, I watched BTTF with a friend who had never seen it before. She commented that the movie made her feel nostalgic, even though she was born in the 90s. I agree with her – if I had to describe the emotions BTTF evokes in a couple of words, “nostalgia” would be one of them. The movie gives the audience the opportunity to escape to a world where you can redo your worst mistakes, where you can live adventurously in a suburb filled with ordinary people. All the repetition, all the leitmotific structure, adds to this: in Marty McFly’s world, you don’t simply live through comedic capers. You relive them. “Skateboard Chase” is important because it builds on the familiar and adds to the promise of possibility.
Great Scott, this has been a long blog post! I wish I had all the time in the world to discuss Alan Silvestri’s work, but I don’t have a DeLorean. If you have time, I suggest you listen to the entire soundtrack of BTTF. It has many things to offer that I didn’t mention, including the original singles “Back in Time” and “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. For now, take a few minutes to Marty McFly hamming it up at a 50s school dance with his version of “Johnny B. Goode.”
And as you go about your day, remember this vaguely inspirational quote that I couldn’t resist shoehorning in here: where you’re going, you don’t need roads.