To the future which might sustain the (orchestral) past

Posted on Posted in American culture, Music and film, Music articles, My blog, Program notes

Writer Bob Gale was visiting his family home in Missouri. In the basement he found an old High School Yearbook photo of his father. The discovery set Gale wondering: would he and his father have been friends if they’d gone to school together? With that, Gale came up with the idea of a teenager travelling back through time to encounter his parents at the same age. He took the idea to director, Robert Zemeckis, who found himself thinking about a mother who boasted she had never kissed a boy at school but was in fact quite loose. Zemeckis and Gale pooled their ideas and these formed the basis for the 1985 Universal Pictures smash-hit, Back to the Future.

Basically the plot of this comedic time-travel fantasy is this: Marty McFly jumps in the DeLorean converted by his mentor Dr Emmett Brown into a time-travel machine and accidentally arrives back in 1955, thirty years earlier. There, he – and not his father George – is knocked over by his mother’s father’s car as it approaches the family driveway and, to avoid being erased from existence, Marty must re-engineer his parents’ meeting and find a 1950s energy source to take him back to 1985, which of course, in 1955, is the future.  (The slight Oedipal problem in the storyline is solved when Marty’s mother, Lorraine, realises that kissing Marty, her time-warped son, is ‘like I’m kissing my brother’ and desists.)

Released in July 1985, Back to the Future grossed over $385 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film for that year. It was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film, and Charles L. Campbell and Robert Rutledge won an Academy Award for Best Sound Effects Editing. The movie became a franchise with two sequels (one set in 2015 and the other in 1885), and has spawned an animated series, a theme park ride, and several video games. A stage musical is due to premiere soon. But the original film is a classic with performances we can savour again and again – Michael J. Fox’s brilliant mastery of timing and pacing as Marty, Crispin Glover’s cringe-making portrayal of George McFly, Christopher Lloyd’s snowy-haired ‘Doc’ Brown based, visually at least, on conductor Leopold Stokowski who famously shook Mickey Mouse’s hand in the 1940 movie, Fantasia.

Set in 1955 and 1985 respectively, Back to the Future (I) is kind of a digest of US and world culture in those two time-periods. Ronald Reagan, sitting US president in 1985, was amused by jokes at his expense (such as his movie advertised on the marquee of the cinema in Norman Rockwell-like Hill Valley in 1955), and this film makes wonderful use within the plot of contemporary music of the two time-periods – in 1955: Mister Sandman, Johnny B. Goode, or Fess Parker’s The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

Back to the Future’s composer Alan Silvestri had previously worked with Robert Zemeckis on the Michael Douglas/Kathleen Turner comedy Romancing the Stone. Having grown up in Teaneck, New Jersey, Silvestri was for a short time in 1966 a drummer in a Teaneck-based band. After studies at Berklee College in Boston, he started his film/television composing career in 1972 at age 21, working on the low-budget action film The Doberman Gang. From 1978-83 he worked on the NBC TV series about two highway motorcycle patrolmen, CHiPs, writing principal music on a number of episodes. Steven Spielberg, who produced Back to the Future, thought Back to the Future need something grander than the music Silvestri had provided for Romancing the Stone – a challenge Silvestri wonderfully met.

And how did he meet it? Something that’s gratifying for lovers of classical music to note: Back to the Future makes prominent use of orchestra.

Orchestras had been a feature of movies in the Golden Era of Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. European émigrés like Erich Wolfgang Korngold  and Franz Waxman had been composers of operas, operettas and orchestral music in Europe before fleeing Hitler for the US, but movie orchestras had fallen out of fashion briefly in the 1950s and 60s. Emilio Audissino, in his book on John Williams, credits John Williams’ Star Wars with bringing about the rebirth of orchestral film music and in the notes to his book Audissino cites Back to the Future along with films like Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Danny Elfman’s Batman as films benefitting from Star War’s orchestral renaissance. In fact, Silvestri’s 85-piece orchestra for Back to the Future was the largest studio orchestra used in Hollywood to that date. It’s a credit to Silvestri’s musical versatility, really, that he could write the ‘synth-pop’ 80s music that so beautifully served Romancing the Stone and then turn to this.

But it’s not just the use of orchestra that speaks to the continuing vitality of classical music. These scores make use of all the musical devices that have evolved in tandem with orchestral music over the past century and a half – the contrasts of tonal and atonal melody, the symbolism of triadic themes, the soaring emotionality of string melodies. Said Dirk Brossé of scores by composers like Silvestri, at the World Soundtrack Awards in Belgium in 2015, ‘… it’s like coming home and meeting music history’.

You kind of have to stop watching the movie to appreciate examples of this in Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future, but obvious examples would be the fragmenting of the main theme into useful melodic motifs, the use of harmonic sequences for tension, the Stravinskian piano ostinati in the chase scenes or the Bartókian chromaticism that begins the sequence ‘Einstein Disintegrated’. As with Williams’ scores, several Silvestri cues, such as ‘Einstein Disintegrated’ or ‘Tension/The Kiss’ (although it appears in the film as underlay for the pop-song, ‘Earth Angel’) could stand alone on a concert stage, as character pieces.

Having pleased Zemeckis with his music for Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future, Silvestri has now worked with Zemeckis on all his films, including Cast Away, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (with its wonderful evocation of mercurial cartoon music), Forrest Gump and 2015’s The Walk. It’s an impressive Hollywood partnership, surpassing Bernard Herrmann’s filmic record with Alfred Hitchcock but not quite John Williams’ association with Steven Spielberg. In fact, Silvestri has said that ‘I know for instance with Robert Zemeckis, he sees these scores as his and they are. They were completely inspired by his work. Every note is there trying to follow…his lead. And so I think there’s a very wonderful, kind of justifiable authorship there. I think when Bob walks into a place and they’re playing one of his themes there’s a smile on his face.’

This statement reveals a major difference with traditional classical music however, because in the concert hall the composer is king. Film doesn’t accept this premise, and in fact even the director’s desires are usually secondary to the product or the audience’s expectations. Playing film scores live with orchestra in concert halls changes this equation. Suddenly the audience has a competing visual. How can a listener not notice what the orchestra is doing? With Back to the Future in particular, screenings with live orchestra have necessitated the composition of more music, as the orchestra only entered (albeit with a flourish) at the 20 minute mark in the original film. But will these forms of concerts have long-term consequences for classical music? All I can say for now is that these philosophical musings give me a chance to catch up with a fun film.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2016

Gordon K. Williams is an Australian writer on music based in Los Angeles. This article first appeared in program booklets for Sydney Symphony Orchestra live screenings of Back to the Future, 7 & 8 October 2016

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