We look at the role of music in the Back To The Future movies, where the 1950s is another planet but 1980s pop songs reign eternal.
Right at the start of Back To The Future, Marty McFly plugs his guitar into a giant amplifier and turns it all the way up. The second he strums his guitar, the machine explodes, propelling Marty across the room, in a sight gag that also centralises music as a major aspect of the film and its sequels.
Released in 1985, Back To The Future is a time-travelling romantic teen comedy that hinges upon the question of whether you would get on with your parents if you knew them when they were your age. As one of the key blockbusters of the President Reagan era, (complete with a whopper of a joke about Reagan’s former movie stardom) Zemeckis’ film comfortably subverts nostalgia for the era in which it’s set, particularly through aspects of teenage identity.
The prominence of music in the narrative lends itself nicely to the musical stage adaptation that opened earlier this year at the Manchester Opera House. At the time of writing, performances are suspended due to the pandemic and a planned West End transfer has yet to be scheduled, but early reviews have praised the musical’s mix of familiar story beats, original songs, and theatrical spectacle.
However, as cinemas tentatively reopen, a 4K re-release of the 1985 films and its back-to-back sequels are among the revival screenings that are coming back to our screens, so let’s take a look at the role of music throughout the trilogy, from social commentary to cameos by featured artists.
Before we get into the soundtrack hits, it makes sense to start with the scores by Alan Silvestri. Fresh off his synth work on Zemeckis’ Romancing The Stone the previous year, Silvestri was selected to provide the music for Back To The Future, but at the request of producer Steven Spielberg, he would provide an orchestral score instead.
It’s a doozy of a score too, with an all-time great movie theme tune. Using a structure that would later be repeated by Silvestri’s titanic Avengers march, the grand and epic Back To The Future theme makes tantalising use of suspended chords that pile build-up upon build-up. The result is a propulsive adventure theme that’s always constantly going somewhere but never loses momentum, only occasionally releasing all that energy with that “daaa dadadadada dahhhh” motif that you couldn’t help but hum as you read that last bit.
In the original film, that triumphant horn motif appears for the first time when Marty (and the movie) hits 88mph but provides endless payoffs in the rest of the movie and its sequels. Arguably, it’s never better deployed than in the finale of the first film where it’s masterfully synchronised with on-screen setbacks in Doc and Marty’s plan, but for its versatility throughout the trilogy, there’s a strong case for it being the best movie theme tune of all.
But this was the mid-1980s, so of course, there was a theme song as well as a score. In 1984, Ghostbusters set new heights for the film tie-in song with Ray Parker Jr’s hit single of the same name.
Huey Lewis And The News (who were simultaneously embroiled in a legal battle with Columbia over Ghostbusters’ similarity to his song I Want A New Drug) were chosen to provide Back To The Future with its own Billboard chart-friendly banger. In the end, the band provided two songs for the soundtrack – The Power Of Love and Back In Time. The former is heard in the opening titles and during Marty’s band’s audition, while the latter plays over the end credits.
Universal fancied The Power Of Love as a more likely breakout hit, but unlike Ghostbusters, neither of them mentioned the film’s title, which undercut their inherent promo value. And so, when it was released as a single, giving The News their first US number 1, but it was distributed to radio stations with a studio note insisting that it be billed as “from the soundtrack of the new movie Back To The Future” after it was played.
Rock around the clock
As a promotional trick, the idea of a movie titled after a pop song goes all the way back to 1956’s Rock Around The Clock, named after and loosely based around the Bill Halley song of the same name. Sam Katzman’s rock-n-roll musical was one of the early Hollywood films expressly aimed at the American teen market, capitalising on the success of the 1954 single and the disposable income of the emerging younger audience.
Back To The Future is primarily set in 1955, the year before Rock Around The Clock shifted the role of pop music in cinema, and therefore it’s significant that Marty’s arrival in the niftily redressed Hill Valley town square we’ve just seen is backed by The Four Aces’ dreamy cover of Mr Sandman. Complemented by Silvestri’s score, the surreal quality of Marty’s trip back in time is played to dream-like effect, right up until the now-working town clock bongs and shakes him out of his reverie.
It’s often stated that a remake of Back To The Future wouldn’t work because 1990 isn’t as drastically different from now as 1985 was from 1955. That’s a preposterous argument, (especially when you can replicate the President Reagan joke but have Doc react with “Donald Trump? The asshole?” instead) except when it comes to the film’s musical identity.
In terms to going back from the 1980s to the 1950s, the introduction of rock and pop music marks a cultural upheaval for the teenaged audience. Music absolutely has developed since 1990, but popular music has remained primarily geared towards the teen demographic in a way that was only just getting started in the 1950s.
Beyond this, the film builds up to musically crashing eras into one another in the climactic scenes. There are further period-appropriate needle drops from Etta James and Johnny Ace, but it’s the introduction of Marvin Berry And The Starlighters that mark the biggest clashes between the 1950s and the 1980s.
The first comes as Marty stands in for the injured Marvin on guitar and the band play Earth Angel. Originally by The Penguins, the doo-wop standard plays over George and Lorraine’s first slow dance. When another student cuts in with Lorraine, the music is crashed by Silvestri’s ominous score as Marty begins to fade out of existence. With a stab of that theme tune build-up, George stands up for himself and kisses Lorraine, which rights the course of history, restores Marty, and reconciles the score with the song in a glorious triumphal note.
And then there’s Johnny B. Goode. Far better writers than I have covered the film’s problematic habit of making Marty as a timey-wimey Great White Hope who teaches African-American people to do things like run for mayor or invent rock-n-roll. It’s not for me to contradict or wave away those criticisms, especially when it seems designed as a cheeky, if not malicious response to the contemporary debate about cultural appropriation.
On the plus side, the film’s big bootstrap paradox gag would require Chuck Berry to write Johnny B. Goode so that Marty could perform it in its entirety in the first place, rather than vice versa. And in the contrast of 1950s and 1980s music colliding, Marty’s original rock-n-roll swindle is set up for a fall because his euphoric performance goes awry after he introduces some more modern rock performance tics, to the apathy and confusion of the teenage crowd.
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it”, he offers as his guitar is taken away from him, before disembarking back to you-know-when.
The eternal ‘80s
The contrast of music is most prominent in the first film, but it also shows up in the sequels. Marty introduces Johnny B. Goode as an oldie where he’s from, and the use of certain songs in different periods crackles away throughout Part II and Part III, even though they’re set further in the future and the past, respectively.
Among the cavalcade of commentary about what Back To The Future Part II got wrong and right when 2015 came and went, we didn’t see much acknowledgement about how the film projected its brand of nostalgia forward 30 years with the Café 80s scene where Michael Jackson blares over the speakers (Beat It) and also appears as one of the Max Headroom-style waiters.
You wouldn’t think that Back To The Future Part III would manage to circle back to 1980s music while mostly being set a century earlier, but there’s another Michael Jackson reference as Marty dodges Buford Tannen shooting at his feet by moonwalking and singing Billie Jean to himself. Again, it doesn’t go over well with the onlookers.
However, there’s also a cameo for ZZ Top during the Hill Valley festival, in which they play an old-west musical trio who perform Doubleback, written by the band for the film’s soundtrack. We’re open to fan theories about the band’s time-travelling abilities, but their use of fiddles, double basses, and hand-drums suggests they’re not doing oldies where they’re from.
This fits into a trend of music artists sneaking in for brief roles elsewhere in the trilogy. Specifically, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame appears in both sequels as Needles, the worst friend in history, while Huey Lewis notably turns up in the first film, as a square-but-not-hip teacher who tells Marty and the Pinheads that their rendition of The Power Of Love is “too darn loud”.
In the context of the whole trilogy, it does seem as if all musical roads lead back to 1980s pop music, even when we’re told they don’t need roads. But with its score and its aspiring rock-star protagonist, music is so central to Back To The Future that it’s no wonder Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale have been trying to get the stage version going for the better part of the last decade.
There are moments like the Johnny B. Goode sequence where the first film hops into movie musical territory, among all the other genres it covers, which make it better placed for such an adaptation than most popular movies. We’re all still agreed that a film remake would be sacrilege, but whether it’s Silvestri’s grand score or the precise soundtrack picks, there’s something about its brand of musical spectacle that should feel at home on stage as it does on screen.
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