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Back To The Future - Complete Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Dec 12, 2009

  • Movies review

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    Back To The Future - Complete Original Motion Picture Score Soundtrack Review

    “Wait a minute, Doc. Ah ... are you telling me that you built a time machine ... out of a DeLorean?”

    You know, when this beloved Spielberg/Zemeckis SF/comedy classic first came out, I wasn't at all smitten by it. 1985 was a year of fantasy and action, all right. We had Sly bashing Commies in Rambo and Rocky IV, Arnie tooling-up in Commando, Tom Cruise taking on Tim Curry's enormo-horned Darkness in Legend, Tom Selleck battling robot spiders in Runaway and, ahem, a crippled Corey Haim outsmarting a werewolf-of-the-cloth in Silver Bullet, the pulverising platoon of amped-up heroics smashing their way across cinema screens like a worldwide tsunami of testosterone. Spielberg, himself, had cemented the persona of one of the greatest action heroes of all-time only the year before with the awesome Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, and this time out he would embrace SF and high-school comedy with supreme time-travelling chutzpah in the runaway success of Back To The Future. Yet, whilst everybody as his dog seemed ecstatic to be along for the ride, I was enormously reticent about the whole Marty McFly thing, the “Power of Love” somehow bypassing me and my teenage predilection for cinematic carnage.

    Of course, as the years have gone by, and perhaps inevitably, the film has grown on me, and even if I rarely think to spin a copy of it, whenever I do see Back To The Future I am invariably swept along by the sheer fun it provides and the undeniable zest with which the Spielberg/Zemeckis juggernaut, at the height of their powers for crafting easygoing, euphoric entertainment for the masses, propel their story. But then I cannot deny that my transition from sneering outsider to reluctant fan was aided enormously by the score. This score. Alan Silvestri had already come to the attention of action music aficionados with his percussive rhythms and jaunty themes for Romancing The Stone and he would, of course, compose some of the greatest and most macho soundtracks for bullet 'n' brawn junkies with the likes of Predator and Predator 2, The Delta Force (see score review), The Abyss and Judgement Night, and it is extremely pleasing to find that he is still an expert in capturing such musical mayhem, with The Mummy Returns, Beowulf, G.I. Joe and, especially, the wildly propulsive Van Helsing in more recent times. Yet, back in 1985, even with years of TV scoring (Starsky and Hutch, CHiPs, Manimal) under his belt, Back To The Future was still an early movie score for him. Although Robert Zemeckis knew and trusted him, especially after Romancing The Stone, Spielberg was still a little unsure about this relative new kid on the block. Famously, though, Zemeckis showed him a cut of the film with what he claimed were some temp tracks laid over it, to which the man behind Jaws and ET commented, “Now that's what your score should sound like.” To which Zemeckis smugly announced that what he was hearing was, indeed, the film's finished score ... and it came from that “new kid on the block”.

    And the rest, as they say, is history which, considering the decade-hopping narrative of the film, I suppose is neatly ironic. But with Back To The Future, Alan Silvestri would secure such a landmark in film-composing that his complete score was to become one of the most requested ever. Whilst the purists still hanker after full works from the classical likes of Steiner, Rozsa, North, Goldsmith and Herrmann, Silvestri's music had a more wide-ranging appeal, a voice that was welcomed, recognised and cherished by more than just serious score collectors.There is a big sound to the score, a thumping, swirling, all-round ebullience that tumbles with the same exquisitely steered energy that John Williams used to command so infectiously. You would have to go back to the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Close Encounters and Star Wars and, further back, to the broad action scope of Max Steiner and Alexander Korngold to find music as thick, fast and flavourful. Silvestri incorporates some occasionally playful elements - jazzy, era-laced asides that provide comical and warm-hearted interludes between the excitement - that alter the pace and tempo of the score only slightly and provide some very necessary light relief to all the frenetic activity that dominates it otherwise. You see, considering how light and amusing the story and Marty's adventure actually are - albeit suffused with terrorists, teenage angst, bully-boys, hinted-at sexuality etc - it is wonderful to hear how Silvestri interprets it all with a very driven, semi-militaristic approach that totally builds on action, suspense and high tension with almost no let-up. The movie, itself, is broken up with many songs, from Huey Lewis And The News amongst others and some classic rock 'n' roll tracks that pepper the score with period charm - things like Johnny B. Goode, for which Mark Campbell provided the vocals for Michael J. Fox, and Night Train and Earth Angel performed by the on-screen band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters during the terrific “Enchantment Under The Sea” sequence. But, if you are looking for those songs, then you are looking in the wrong place, I'm afraid. Whilst the original soundtrack album released by Varese Sarabande contained all of those, this 2-disc presentation is only comprised of Silvestri's original score. And, according to the extensive notes that accompany the release, we have everything that he wrote and conducted for the film, taken from a variety of sources (some of the original session tapes had already begun to decompose, but there were a plethora of alternatives available in pristine condition), including Silvestri's own masters. The resulting presentation, the full release score (plus unused elements) as well as the composer's early session experimental work, are spread over the two is wonderful quality. The notes state that some difference in timbre may be detected in certain tracks due to the different sources used but, to be honest, I sincerely doubt that you will notice anything other than a wonderfully rich, warm and clear sound throughout.

    “Last night, Darth Vader came down from planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn't take Lorraine out that he'd melt my brain.”

    Silvestri's trademarked tritone motif makes a fully fledged appearance in the score. The tritone is the raised, or augmented, fourth interval that spans three whole tones, and is used, particularly in Western harmonies to eliminate any overt tonality within the composition. Right, that's the science bit out of the way. For those of us who may be more, ahem, casual listeners, this usually presents itself as stark and emphatic chords whose power, when combined, is derived from a slightly longer than usual gap in-between them, thus creating a spellbinding motif that does away with the lushness of, say, James Horner, yet carries a lingering strength that gains weight and pace from the interval. Curiously, it attained some reputation as being the “Devil's Interval” due to its melodic awkwardness when used in conjunction with ecclesiastical singing. With this in mind, its distinctive and emphatic expression is perfectly attuned to the likes of Silvestri's later Predator scores. Other tritone exponents include Bela Bartok, Black Sabbath, Buckethead and, most engagingly of them all, Danny Elfman, who uses it with infectious immediacy during the opening chords of his theme to The Simpsons. For Back To The Future, it establishes a bold, strident signature to the main theme, and forms a powerfully familiar backbone for its many permutations as well as the other themes heard throughout. Even Silvestri's recent score for the 3D CG version of A Christmas Carol, also for Robert Zemeckis, features such an effective device.

    Another musical treat that works especially well under Silvestri's command, is the use of the tuba, something that only John Williams really made noticeably popular in his scores for Spielberg (Close Encounters, Raiders) and then for the original Star Wars trilogy. But Silvestri brings up its plump, bellicose tone to reinforce some startlingly rapid action sequences, lending them a quasi-humorous and eloquently throaty attitude. The composer was blessed with a then-unprecedented 98-piece orchestra, something that was especially rewarding considering that Alan Silvestri, despite having been around for years, was still pretty much a novice when it came to massive-scale cinematic scoring. A huge string section complements well-stocked woodwinds and a strong brass contingent. The resulting dense and detailed sound was, and still is astounding to hear.

    “Oh no, they've found me. I don't know how, but they've found me. RUN FOR IT, MARTY!!!"

    There is a relentless quality to the score that may take some listeners, those more used to the tension-diluting songs in the film, by surprise. Fast, hyper-kinetic and pulse-pounding, the majority of the score takes place at veritable light-speed and yet flows-over with abundant wit, invention and intricate orchestration. The ticking clock motif, so important to this score and the film it embraces, comes in two flavours. We have one for Doc Brown's over-hyped antics, found in Einstein Disintergrated, Marty Ditches DeLorean, 1.21 Jigowatts and Doc Brown Returns, as well as the little unused cue, The Picture. And then Silvestri inverts this suspense-chimed theme into a more racy and threat-orientated form for Skateboard Chase and George To The Rescue, both signifying the villainy of Biff Tannen, and it is important to note that this motif, as well as the versatile main theme, would naturally be carried over into the next two films in the trilogy.

    “That's Strickland? Jesus. Didn't that guy ever have hair?”

    With so much good stuff going on in this score, writing-up a track-by-track analysis would take forever and a day, so I intend to concentrate primarily upon the stand-out cues that made this soundtrack so important and memorable. After the brief, reined-in fanfare for the Logo, Track 1, and the glistening Twilight Zone-esque eeriness of the second track and the frantic tuba-infused scurry of the third, we reach the first major set-piece in Track 4, '85 Twin Pines Mall, for when Christopher Lloyd's eccentric Doc Brown introduces poor Marty (Michael J. Fox) to the delights of furious, unprepared time travel via his modified DeLorean car, whilst fending off the greedy and, indeed, deadly attention of a bunch of Libyan terrorists. Slow sliding strings soon give in to the briskly militaristic drums and percussion of what becomes the terrorist ostinato. Dark, driven and actually focussed on a level of violence that is tangible in the music, this theme foreshadows the marvellous sequence when Arnie's buff uber-warrior, Dutch, tools-up, jungle-style, to take on the vicious Predator after all his men have been skinned and mounted as alien bush-tucker trophies. Brass flurries give direction and impetus to the steady, unforgiving rhythm, gentle shimmies from the cymbals add tension as the march gains vigour and intensity. Beautifully glib piano chords then decorate the bridge section two-thirds of the way through, in conjunction with blurts from trombone, suggestive of pell-mell ducking and dodging. The track then rises towards a more heroic cadence as Silvestri then allows more elements of the orchestra come in, with horn trilling and greater emphasis made of the cymbal clashes.

    Track 5, comprising Peabody Barn and Marty Ditches DeLorean is both mysterious and cheeky. Marty has now travelled back to 1955 and found himself in his home town of a bygone era. Both cues contain moments of glissandi that coolly imbue a sense of the magical and the unearthly, and both also boast some playful action that delivers a nervous energy into the mix. This eerie dissonance is created with bending strings and a mysterioso frame of the main theme laced over the top. The harp adds a glacial touch, swirling strings and tinkling chimes also appear. Brass hovers about and there is hint of Bernard Herrmann's skin-prickling suspense from his Harryhausen days (Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason And The Argonauts) to the quieter spells. This sliding, gentle and ethereal quality is borne-over into Track 6, with '55 Town Square, and the short next track, Lorraine's Window, as well. With the subsequent shimmering from harp and chimes, echoing with a crystal-like motif, in Retrieve DeLorean, these four tracks establish Silvestri's fantastical themes, delicately reinforcing the whole sci-fi angle of the plot, before the high school hi-jinx and bizarre twisted familial exchanges take place when Marty meets the babe (Lea Thompson) and the nerd (the great Crispin Glover) he will have to make it his mission to bring together for a fateful kiss if he is ever to be born in the future in the first place.

    After the unused track, The Picture (Track 10), and its spectral follow-on, Picture Fades, we enter the energetic treatment that accompanies Marty's audacious escape from the outhouse-built Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Chimes and woodblock sound-out in syncopated agitation, ushering in the helter-skelter rush of Marty's improvised evasion tactics. Brass fanfares greet his breakneck success amid a tumbling heartbeat of rapid piano chords. A softer and somewhat wisftul Americana take on the main theme provides some respite in Track 13, Marty's Letter, and then we are into another dramatic and tense build-up cue with George To The Rescue Pt 1, Silvestri's swarming variation of the ticking clock motif driving the track upwards in a spiral of anxiety. Skipping over the jazzy source cue that follows this, we then get more edgy jangles and staccato beats with George To The Rescue Pt 2. This track has peaks and troughs of drama, suspense and action, but is rounded-out with a satisfyingly tender and romantic pay-off of the main theme, before that irresistible and poignant glissandi returns to remind Marty and us that the clock is still ticking if he ever wants to get back to the future. The following two cues that make up Track 17, Tension and The Kiss, sort of extend the flavour of this tense drama and emotional wallop double-act with even more power and grace, a gleaming harp plucking at the heart-strings as well. Silvestri does remarkably well in his pace-changing and mood-hopping, his musical antics mirroring the fun, the excitement and the surprising seriousness of the scenario perfectly. With a couple of source cues thrown in, the album literally keeps you on your toes. Those Predator-inflections keep cropping up, but, hey, they were heard here first.

    After '85 Twin Pines Mall, the next all-out, no-holds-barred classic track is, unquestionably, that which supports the arresting Clocktower sequence that dominates the film's finale. Here, and presumably with Alan Silvestri's full intentions, we have the cue “It's Been Educational” fronting it. A sombre horn reflects momentarily before a slow string rendition of the main theme lilts across the top. However, this swiftly bows under the undeniable and totally infectious commencement of the wild ride that will sweep up the entire orchestra and hurl them about for a workout that must have left them breathless and exultant. For the fantastically protracted and exciting Clocktower, Silvestri brings most of his recurring themes into action and creates one of the most strenuously invigorating compositions of his career. An epic ten-minute action-fest, the Clocktower finale is the film's and the score's grand showpiece. A rip-roaring, rabble-rousing spectacular that is guaranteed to get the crowd on its feet, this is action-music writing at its very best. Much more than just an electrified orchestral accompaniment to the visuals that, divorced from the film, becomes just an exciting chunk of rhythms and noise like something from Hans Zimmer, say, this amazing set-piece tells a story with as much commitment, colour and character as the movie, itself.

    “Great Scott!!”

    Clicking sticks, cloud-bursting brass injections, frantic keyboard hammering, bass and percussion gathering momentum and strings folding over the roof of it all as though urging the rest of the instruments to catch up, the track builds up a head of steam and simply goes for broke. After the midway point, the tinkling glissandi reappears, edging the event with the “time running out” motif. The relentless undercurrent that speeds up, individual instruments - harp, flute, bassoon, French Horn - flashing into the mix as the whole thing becomes an unstoppable locomotive. So many little vignettes appear within that the track begins to feel like it is the entire score just condensed into one crushing mega-edit. Wonderful stuff.

    Track 21, '85 Lone Pine Mall, is a predominantly heroic piece. The first minute is pulsating and heaving with the headlong rush that only the Flux Capacitor can produce, the second is a soft returning whimsy as Marty makes it home again ... and the third vies between determined attempts at the fanfare and the softer lament for the homecoming. That awesome tuba, played by John Thomas Thompson, bruises its way thickly to the fore of Track 23, Doc Returns, amid mouse-like scurrying from piano, woodwinds and strings before the drums and brass take up the baton and establish that Marty's adventures are not over yet with a furious martial crescendo.

    The End Credits complete Disc 1's full presentation of the score. For a long time, this cue was the only way to properly hear the main theme, and this time out, replete with jubilant fanfares and a air-punching victorious slant with lots of sky-shimmering cymbals, the cue acts as a triumphant assembly of one of the genre's most lauded title themes.

    What Intrada have come up here, after a mind-boggling seven-year odyssey and labour of love for album producer Douglass Fake, is not just the complete score, which has never actually been released before (the previous album was a mixture of songs from the film and only a couple of meagre cues from the orchestral epic), but a forty-minute collection of Silvestri's alternate, and unused version of the score for the film. This rare score selection is over on the second CD of the two-disc presentation, and it offers an amazing glimpse into what could have been a darker, more serious and intense variation of Marty's adventures. Many of the themes that have become so famous and so loved have their alter-egos, here, in what the composer first experimented with during the early stages of the lengthy recording sessions in May and June of 1985. Some of the differences are only minor to what we would ultimately hear in the finished score - merely different instrumentation, the shifting of some rhythmic - but others are unusual and striking, leading you to assume, from time to time, that you are listening to the score from some limbo-locked film between films. Plainly Silvestri fine-tuned his ideas from this score and swapped some elements and motifs around to perfect the final version, but this still works as a terrifically dynamic experience in its own right and is well worth listening to.

    Silvestri would go on to compose the exhilarating scores for the couplet of back-to-back sequels, too. Although it would be Back To The Future Part III, both as film and as score, that would be the superior of the follow-ups, both scores liberally utilised the themes that he created here, but Part III totally embraced the Western setting of the story and allowed him to push out into new musical territory. Now that Intrada have managed to get this soundtrack out to us, though, maybe Parts II (which is really only a retread of the original score anyway) and III won't be so far behind - at least not seven years, eh?

    This fantastic release is typically limited, and Intrada, themselves, sold out of it within 24 hours ... but, owing to the massive interest in the score, they are pressing another run, although they have not actually stated what the full worldwide number of copies will be. Thus, my advice, as always, is to get your order in quick!

    Full Track Listing

    1. Logo 0:20

    2. DeLorean Reveal 0:46

    3. Einstein Disintegrated 1:22

    4. '85 Twin Pines Mall 4:43

    5. Peabody Barn; Marty Ditches DeLorean 3:09

    6. '55 Town Square 1:18

    7. Lorraine 's Bedroom 0:47

    8. Retrieve DeLorean 1:15

    9. 1.21 Jigowatts 1:37

    10. The Picture 1:09

    11. Picture Fades 0:17

    12. Skateboard Chase 1:39

    13. Marty's Letter 1:20

    14. George To The Rescue - Pt. 1 0:50

    15. Marvin Be-Bop 2:25

    16. George To The Rescue - Pt. 2 2:34

    17. Tension; The Kiss 1:33

    18. Goodnight Marty 1:31

    19. It's Been Educational; Clocktower 10:30

    20. Helicopter 0:19

    21. '85 Lone Pine Mall 3:46

    22. 4 x 4 0:40

    23. Doc Returns 1:14

    24. Back To The Future (End Credits) 3:16

    CD 1 Total Time 49:24

    The Creation Of A Classic... Alternate Early Sessions

    1. DeLorean Reveal 0:40

    2. Einstein Disintegrated 1:25

    3. Peabody Barn 2:17

    4. Marty Ditches DeLorean 1:56

    5. '55 Town Square #1 (Trumpet Open) 1:35

    6. '55 Town Square #2 (Trumpet Mute) 1:35

    7. Retrieve DeLorean 1:16

    8. 1.21 Jigowatts 1:36

    9. The Picture 1:08

    10. Skateboard Chase 1:40

    11. George To The Rescue 4:13

    12. Tension; The Kiss 1:42

    13. Clocktower 11:02

    14. '85 Lone Pine Mall 3:50

    15. Doc Returns 1:19

    Alternate Scoring Session Time = 37:41

    Bonus Track

    16. Ling Ting Ring 2:01

    Total Time = 15:25

    CD 2 Total Time = 39:44

    Total 2 Discs Time = 89:08


    Verdict

    One of the most sought-after film-scores of recent years finally makes its way onto a lavish silver platter that is suitably bedecked with ample added value. Alan Silvestri had made an impact with his score for Robert Zemeckis already with Romancing The Stone, but it would be Back To The Future that would catapult him to the forefront of movie-composers during the 80's and establish him as a resourceful, inventive and highly distinctive voice across most genres, but most notably and successfully with big, bold action spectaculars.

    Intrada may have taken seven long years to wrestle a release for the complete version of this landmark score, but the wait has most definitely been worth it. As a companion-piece to Predator, this is remarkably accomplished and I'm surprised that more people don't comment on their overall similarity, the score for the Rastafarian head-hunter was clearly evolved from this highly-charged cavalcade. Unmistakably a Silvestri score, this is one of the pivotal works from the 80's and, as such, its influences cannot be ignored. The composer sort of went off on a tangent during the next decade, but his scores in the last few years have certainly hearkened back to his massively ambitious early Big Screen days with a similarly lush and dynamic, full-on wall of detailed writing that just cannot be beaten for innovation and energy. But it was this score that set all that in motion and helped him realise his true potential.

    For all the work that has gone into producing this album and the sheer quality of it, as well as the score's massive, impossible to overstate value to film-music in general, Intrada's Back To The Future gets a totally warranted 10 out of 10.

    An absolute bonafide modern classic of a score that deserves a place in the collection of any soundtrack-fan.


    The Rundown

    Movie

    10

    Overall

    10

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