Monday, July 4, 2011

Back to the Future: What's up, Doc?

I don't know about you, but every time I watch Back to the Future, even though I've probably seen it a dozen times or more*, I get absolutely wrapped up in the tension of the clock tower sequence, to the point that I'm actually worried on some level that it may not actually work out this time for Marty and Doc Brown. It's ludicrous, but that's what a masterful score can do for a film. The scenes leading up to Marty's escape from 1955 are a rare example of a perfect marriage of editing and music to create a relentlessly thrilling extended sequence. Alan Silvestri can proudly claim this one.

When I was younger I thought for a long time, as many still do, that Back to the Future was a Steven Spielberg film, and that its score was written by John Williams. You could be forgiven for thinking both. Spielberg was the executive producer on BTTF, of course, and the film was marketed on the strength of the Spielberg name, as his protege Robert Zemeckis wasn't nearly as well known then. Spielberg's influence there undoubtedly played a part in giving us the score that Back to the Future ended up with, since Zemeckis apparently advised composer Alan Silvestri to write an "epic" adventure score to fit Spielberg's sensibilities.

It worked, undoubtedly, beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Silvestri didn't just write an epic adventure score; he created a work of infectious charm and magic that's entirely his own and left an indelible mark on movie score history. What's funny about that is that we don't hear a single note of Silvestri's orchestral score until nearly 20 minutes into Back to the Future!

We've already heard a lot of music by then, though, because music is at the very core of the film, grounding the time settings of 1955 and 1985 very cleverly with pop music and even affecting the plot of the movie as Marty McFly accidentally invents rock 'n' roll at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. If you're a casual viewer, you probably associate Back to the Future more with the Huey Lewis songs that bookend the film in the two different versions of 1985 than any other piece of music. It's tough to think of BTTF without "The Power of Love" coming to mind.

(Fun fact about Huey Lewis and '80s movie music: It was apparently because of his work on Back to the Future that Mr. Lewis turned down an offer to write tunes for another little movie called Ghostbusters -- so they called on Ray Parker, Jr. to write a theme song that sounded a little too much like Lewis' hit "I Want a New Drug." What a coincidence! Lewis sued, they settled out of court, and both movies' soundtrack albums were big hits. Everybody wins. Kind of.)

The depth of this film's musical personality reaches down even into the performances -- not just Marty McFly's on musicianship, but in Christopher Lloyd's unhinged portrayal of Doctor Emmett Brown. Lloyd has said on several occasions that he patterned his performance as Doc Brown on the mannerisms of the eccentric conductor and arranger Leopold Stokowski.



In his day, Stokowski was a bona fide celebrity as the conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, famous for his unruly shock of white hair and sweeping, dramatic style of conducting by hand. Now he's best remembered through cartoons, as the conductor of the orchestra in Disney's Fantasia - one of my favorite films of all time - and as a parody of himself played by none other than Bugs Bunny in a hilarious short called "Long-Haired Hare" from Disney's old rival Warner Brothers:


Pretty heavy, huh?

A famous conductor may seem an odd inspiration for a mad scientist, but it's a fantastic choice for the screen as Lloyd lurches and swoops through the entire movie with a relentless manic intensity. Where it gets interesting for me is the "cartoon" part of Doc's personality. I don't think it's at all coincidental that Doc's cartoonishness found its way into Silvestri's writing for Back to the Future. In fact, it's arguably the musical identity for Doc Brown that keeps BTTF light, fun, and utterly magical, even in the midst of some of the most rousing action-adventure scoring that's ever been accomplished. That identity goes straight back to the sensibility of Carl Stalling, the composer who gave so many classic cartoons their signature sound -- including the one in the video above.

It's no stretch to suppose that a Carl Stalling-like sound was on Silvestri's mind as he wrote Doc Brown's music. Silvestri consciously dove into the Stalling style with both feet in Zemeckis' next feature, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, so we know he was perfectly aware of its conventions. The versatility of a cartoony style serves Doc's mood swings and broad gestures perfectly, and allows the music to turn on a dime and incorporate new ideas every few seconds, just like a typical Looney Tunes scenario. In just a minute and a half in "1.21 Jigowatts (sic - Track 9)," the music's tone pivots five or six times, between silly little squeaks and flourishes in the woodwinds' upper registers and broad statements of mysterious science-fiction strings.

Silvestri's cartoony signature for Doc goes so far as to incorporate "Mickey-Mousing," so named for the early habit of cartoons to match every movement of the characters with musical notes -- like plucking strings when a character is tiptoeing, or accompanying an arched eyebrow with a violin bending a note sharply upward. As the clock tower sequence begins, strings follow Doc as he careens wildly across the frame, blasting out a crashing statement of his own three-note descending motif each time he stops to check one of his innumerable watches and shout, "damn!" Later on, when Doc is "revived" in the mall parking lot in 1985, a tinkling version of the same motif matches the motion of his blinking eyes.

It all comes together, in the end, to that clock tower sequence (Track 19). (I've got to wrap this up somewhere, after all, much as I'd like to go into an extended exploration of each track.) In an uninterrupted ten minutes of music, Silvestri ties together everything that's contained in the sequence on screen, just as the action on screen encapsulates everything about the movie: Suspense, sly humor, genuine warmth and emotion, sheer panic, and the thrill and bravado of sheer kinetic energy. (I just re-watched this sequence as I prepared to write this, and I'd like to pause just to appreciate what Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd did with that scene. How they managed to work so many layers of emotion into a scene in which they literally had to shout most of their dialogue is a mystery.)

It's refreshing to listen to that sequence now, when much of contemporary film music has become so blandly homogeneous. I've listened to extended action cues from recent scores that don't have a fraction of the personality of the clock tower sequence. First of all, Silvestri constantly varies his rhythms, keeping us forever off balance and never letting us become comfortable with where the music is going. He masterfully uses the entire percussion section throughout - I can't say for certain, but I'm sure even the triangle is employed inventively somewhere in there. Every musical theme or motif that Silvestri has developed comes magnificently into play here, from Doc's bouncy rhythm to the heroic main theme of the film that comes charging down the road with the DeLorean in the photo finish. A contemporary composer might just lay down ten minutes of constantly chopping eighth notes from the cello section, overlay a basic theme, and call it a day. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)

In case I haven't made it clear, I'd rather listen to this ten minutes of music than many entire scores. Fortunately, though, the entire Back to the Future score is finally available now, thanks to the 2008 Intrada 2-CD set (link above from the album cover). For a long time, that wasn't the case -- the only soundtrack available officially consisted mostly of the Huey Lewis and other pop songs that were featured in the movie, with a couple of suites of Silvestri's orchestral score. A tinny bootleg of the whole score was available online for a while, which was unsatisfactory. Now the tables are turned and there's not only a CD of Silvestri's full 49 minutes of music for the final film, but an entire second disc of alternate cues as they existed before Silvestri re-worked the score to lighten the tone of the film. Not only is it the whole CD a glorious improvement in sound quality over anything that's been available before, but In case you wonder how the cartoony tone for Doc affected the mood of the entire picture, you have but to listen to the alternate cues on the second disc. Many of them are still quite exciting, but paint a darker, moodier picture.

Of course, something about the experience of Back to the Future does seem missing without the pop songs -- Yes, I do like Huey Lewis and the News, what's it to ya? I will probably end up acquiring those separately and inserting them into my BTTF playlist on iTunes. (Hooray for technology!) Meanwhile, the expanded score is more than worth its $30 price tag from Screen Archives Entertainment.

I could easily go on much longer about this relatively brief score. I've spent months thinking about this entry as I've prepared to re-launch this blog. If it were a baby, it would be born already. I'll probably have some more tangential thoughts soon, between now and the next full review. Stay tuned . . . there's (finally) more to come!

*Many more if you add up the partial viewings I've racked up whenever I catch it on TV and get sucked in to the very end, even with commercials.

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