Soundtrack Collection: Back to the Future trilogy

Back to the Future Part II Back to the Future (score) Back to the Future Part III

The success of Back to the Future in 1985 came as something of a surprise.  The film had been a pretty troubled production, particularly since the lead actor had to be replaced a few weeks into shooting.  As the movie neared its release date, the low expectations started to be replaced by extremely positive reviews.  Once it opened, positive word of mouth propelled it to become the year’s top grossing film and it remains a true enduring classic from that era.

Several careers were boosted dramatically by the film.  Robert Zemeckis instantly became an A-list director and Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd both were transitioned from TV stars to movie stars.  The film also firmly established Steven Spielberg’s credibility and marketability as a producer on films he didn’t direct.  The film also became an important franchise for Universal, eventually spawning two sequels, an animated TV series, an attraction at the Universal Studios theme parks, and various merchandise tie-ins.

Alan Silvestri’s career as a film composer also received a major  boost from the film’s success.  He had previously had success as a composer for TV (particularly scoring many episodes of CHiPs) and had collaborated with Zemeckis for the first time on the previous year’s hit Romancing the Stone, but Back to the Future was the first time he really achieved widespread attention and acclaim. 

Even though the soundtrack album only had a small portion of his score (the whole score wouldn’t come out until nearly 25 years later), the main theme quickly became extremely recognizable and the sequels both received score-only soundtracks.  After Back to the Future, Silvestri has continued to work regularly on major film projects right up to the present, including every subsequent film that Robert Zemeckis has directed.

My collection includes the original song soundtrack that was released in 1985, the complete score collection released in 2009, both of the sequel soundtracks, and a Varese Sarabande re-recording of music from all three films.  After the break, I will discuss each of the albums in some detail.

Back to the Future (song album)

Back to the Future (Song Album, 1985): The original Back to the Future soundtrack was primarily a song album, although it did contain about 11 minutes of Alan Silvestri’s score.  The song album was a very big seller and is actually still in print today.

The best known songs from the film were the two by Huey Lewis and the News.  The film was released while the band was at the height of their popularity thanks to the hit “Sports” album that had come out in 1983.  Lewis’ mix of 80s rock with 50s doo-wop style was really a perfect fit for the time travel plot of the film.

The best known song from the film was “The Power of Love”, which hit #1 on the pop charts and is very well-used in the film’s early scenes.  The other Huey Lewis song on the album is “Back In Time”, which played over the film’s credits.  This one is more directly tied to the movie, with lyrics that reference the characters and the film’s plot.  The early part of the CD (side 1 of the old LP) also contains 80s rock songs by Eric Clapton and Lindsay Buckingham.  Both songs were only heard very briefly in the film as radio source music, but they are generally good songs.

Silvestri’s very recognizable main theme for the film is also presented in a 3 minute arrangement that played during the second half of the end credits and is simply titled “Back to the Future” on the album.  Side 2 on the old LP (or the second half of the CD) opens with an 8 minute suite of highlights from Silvestri’s score entitled “Back to the Future Overture”.  It is a well selected suite that covers a lot of the key parts of the score, although it is obviously in no way comprehensive.

The rest of the CD contains the music from the 50s portion of the film, including the songs prominently featured during the pivotal school dance sequence.  The section opens with Etta James’ performance of her classic song “The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry)” and then continues with the songs from the dance: “Night Train”, “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” and “Johnny B. Goode”.  Interesting, the album credits those last 3 songs to the characters in the film (“Marvin Barry and the Starlighters” and “Marty McFly with the Starlighters”) and the actual names of the performers aren’t given.

Back to the Future (score)

Back to the Future (score album, 2009): For many years, the score to Back to the Future was one of the biggest “holy grail” releases for film score fans.  In late 2009, Intrada finally filled that long standing gap with a 2-CD release containing the complete score on disc 1 and about 40 minutes of alternate takes on disc 2.

The album opens with a short (23 seconds) statement of the main theme fanfare that was intended to accompany the opening title.  This wasn’t actually used in the movie (replaced with sound effects), but still provides a great opening for the score album.  This is followed by the music from the Twin Pines Mall sequence that introduced the DeLorian time machine.  Up to that point, the rest of the 1985 scenes were either scored with pop songs or were left un-scored entirely.

Silvestri’s brassy fanfare and main theme are among the more recognizable (even to the general public) movie themes from the 1980s.  The main theme is incorporated throughout the score.  Silvestri uses the opening fanfare pretty regularly, essentially as the theme for the Marty McFly character.  Slower tempo versions are used in cues such as “Lorraine’s Bedroom” or “Marty’s Letter” to emphasize the more character-oriented scenes.   Full statements of the theme are often used during the action sequences.

The majority of the score is heavy on brass and strings with lots of percussion also coming into play during the action sequences.  The nature of the film gave Silvestri a pretty wide range of moods to convey and he meets the challenge very well.  His action scoring is very impressive, in cues such as “Skateboard Chase” and especially the 10 minute “It’s Been Educational; Clocktower”, which is easily the highlight of this score.  Other interesting cues include the almost dreamlike state conveyed in “’55 Town Square”  and the highly romantic strings (leading into a romantic re-statement of the main theme) in “Tension; The Kiss”.

The alternate takes on disc 2 came as a major surprise as it wasn’t really widely known that Silvestri had previously recorded an earlier version of the score that was later replaced.  This earlier version is mostly thematically the same as the cues used in the film, but the tone was somewhat darker, particularly with the use of less muted brass creating a somewhat higher tension to the music.  Another significant difference is that Silvestri used the main theme quite a bit more in the final version of the score.  The differences are often subtle, but the overall feel of the alternate version of the score is definitely different.

Silvestri’s score is a milestone and it is wonderful that it is finally fully available.  While the song album provided a solid sampler of the score’s key moments and the Back to the Future Part II soundtrack also covered some similar areas, the unavailability of the original score still was a pretty serious gap.  Intrada is to be commended for the excellent job they did at filling that gap.

Back to the Future Part II

Back to the Future Part II (1989): When the second Back to the Future film came out, it was a bit surprising that the MCA Records soundtrack was entirely a score album, containing about 45 minutes of Alan Silvestri’s music.  After the success of the song album for the first film (including a #1 hit single), another song album for the sequels might have been expected.  Director Robert Zemeckis apparently decided to opt for scoring the new films (the 2nd and 3rd films were shot back-to-back) strictly using Alan Silvestri’s orchestral music.  The second film doesn’t even have a closing credits song.

A large portion of the second film (mainly the entire 3rd act) essentially doubled back on the first film, showing many of the same scenes from a different perspective.  Because of this format, Silvestri doesn’t really introduce much in the way of new themes in this film, instead continuing to build on the first film’s themes and even essentially re-orchestrating some of the same basic cues.  This makes the album play like an extension to the first film’s score.  Back when it came out, it even took a bit of the sting out of the unavailability of most of the first film’s score.

The film was overall quite a bit darker and more downbeat than the first one and this is reflected in the score.  In particular, the cue “Alternate 1985”, which accompanied the depressingly bleak alternate reality created in the film, is probably the darkest bit of scoring in the series.  To a degree, the score actually feels like it has more in common with the unused version of the first film’s score than the final version.

Back to the Future Part III

Back to the Future Part III (1990): While the second film mostly repeated the themes from the first, the third film gave much more opportunity to introduce substantial new themes.  While the second movie re-explored the same basic settings as the first, the third shifted nearly all of the action to the old west.  The introduction of a love interest for Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown also provided new opportunities.

The third score still has the same basic style and is definitely recognizable as being from the same series as the previous two.  The main Back to the Future theme is still used pretty regularly and most of the action music has a similar quality to what was in the previous scores.  The old west provides Silvestri the opportunity to use some traditional western motifs, including harmonic.  The cue “Hill Valley” even concludes with a harmonica version of the main fanfare.

Silvestri introduces two major new themes, both of which are used frequently and even dominantly in the score.  The first is a very tender, string and woodwind melody that serves as the love theme for Doc and Clara.  This is among the most beautiful melodies that Silvestri has written and, impressively, it still fits with the other music from the series. A fully realized version of this theme is presented in the cue “At First Sight” and is re-used regularly during the other scenes involving the romance.

The other major new theme is a new march that serves as a primary theme for the western setting.  It is a somewhat faster paced, more actively upbeat theme than the main series theme.  During many of the action sequences, this new theme is used along side the main theme, which tends to be very effective in this score.  While the theme appears in bits and pieces regularly throughout the score, it doesn’t receive a full performance on the CD until the cue “We’re Out of Gas” late in the album. It also is very prominently featured in the end credits suite.

The soundtrack for the 3rd film was licensed out to Varese Sarabande and runs about 40 minutes, covering the major parts of the score.  The sequencing on the CD is a bit odd, though, generally having little to do with the order of events in the film itself.  For instance, “part 2” of  the train sequence (the film’s climax) is the second cue on the disc!  I would imagine that they figured this sequence was best presentation, but it definitely is apt to annoy purists who like hearing the music in film order.

A new song entitled Doubleback was written and performed by ZZ Top for the film.  The album doesn’t include the full vocal version of the song as it played over the end credits, but it does include a country-style instrumental only version, mainly featuring fiddle and harmonica.  The vocal version of the song appeared on a couple different ZZ Top albums and is also easily purchased as a download from Amazon, iTunes, or other download services.

Back to the Future Trilogy

Back to the Future Trilogy (Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by John Debney, 1999): Varese Sarabande released this compilation album of re-recordings of music from all three films, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by John Debney.  The album provides a pretty good sampler of the key themes from each of the three films.  For some reason, the performances are a bit slower in tempo than the originals which does take away from it a bit, but this isn’t extreme and probably wouldn’t even be noticeable to anyone that doesn’t know the original soundtracks well.

At the time that that the disc came out, the biggest selling point really was that it contained 30 minutes of music from the original film, nearly 3 times what was on the original soundtrack release.  Particularly notable were the first availability of the complete music from the skateboard chase and the clocktower sequence.  Of course, this is much less important now that the full score is available on the Intrada discs, but it was definitely a welcome expansion at the time.

The set does include one piece of music that isn’t available anywhere else.  The last cue on the disc is a 4 minute suite of music from “Back to the Future: The Ride”, the attraction that closed a couple years ago at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida.  Not surprisingly, the music from the ride is variations on the themes from all three films, but Silvestri does provide some new bridging material and the overall arrangement is unique to the ride.

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