Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Sounds of the Future

A lot of fresh attention and love was thrust back on Back to the Future when, last year, we reached the future target of Doc and Marty's adventures in Back to the Future Part II. (Wow... let me take a moment here to note how weird it is that we're now in a year beyond the "impossibly distant" 2015.) Part of the celebration of October 26, 2015 was the release of some new BttF merchandise. Intrada Records marked the occasion by releasing new 2-disc soundtracks of Alan Silvestri's scores for Part II and Part III -- the first time the complete scores for either movie had been made available. And being a huge Back to the Future fan, of course I had to pick them up.
For today, I'll just delve into the Back to the Future Part II soundtrack. But honestly, it's by far the weaker of the two -- a relatively laid back score without much original material. You can't entirely fault composer Alan Silvestri here, given the nature of the movie. Part II doesn't have as many action or suspense sequences as the original, so less bombastic music was called for. And Part II's plot actually took the characters back into the story of the original film, so not many new themes were needed either.

In fact, there are several tracks on the Part II soundtrack that are virtually identical to tracks (or portions of tracks) on the original Back to the Future soundtrack. "Hoverboard Chase" is the first film's "Skateboard Chase" with just a couple of new low brass lines peppered in. "Burn the Book" is just part of the epic Clock Tower sequence from part one (for when you're not wanting to listen to an 11-minute song, I suppose). "Western Union" joins the music from the original's bulletproof vest reveal with the conclusion of the Clock Tower sequence (though to be fair, you're literally watching footage from the first film in that moment). Still, familiarity isn't always bad. "Tunnel Chase" is one of my favorites on the album, despite it using many of the already established themes. Its inexorable timpani and snare creates a relentless pulsing rhythm that feels to me like the orchestral equivalent of "four on the floor" rock and roll.

There are some minor bits of experimentation here and there. A lot of the material for the 2015 section of the movie leans more heavily on the xylophone than anything from the original movie. ("A Flying DeLorean?" and "Biff Steals DeLorean.") The last minute of "The Future" is an interesting, almost sinister take on Silvestri's main Back to the Future anthem. Other tracks play around with how sparse the orchestra can be made to sound; "Alternate 1985" and "The Book" feel like they hardly use more than a quarter of the orchestra at any one time. And while most of Silvestri's music for this trilogy rests on a prominent 4/4 rhythm, tracks like "If They Ever Did" and "You'll Never Lose" feature long sections in free time, with total silence among the percussion.

There is a little bit of new material, if you're on the lookout for it. "Biff's World" and "My Father" both use a melodramatic, defeated melody to accent the bleakness of the altered 1985. "He's Gone" uses similarly dark material at the moment Marty briefly believes that Doc may have been killed. There's also one of the best tracks on the album, "The West," previewing the Western theme for Part III. Silvestri wrote that music just to accompany the Part III preview trailer originally at the end of Part II. It's only a taste of the score to come, but it sets a perfect tone -- it's not pure Western movie, but more the idea of what a Western movie "ought to sound like," a perfect mirror for Marty McFly's own experience of traveling to the Old West.

The album also offers something akin to "concert versions" of the series' main themes, in the form of "Main Title (Extended Version)" and "End Title." The first Back to the Future actually opened with no music, and ended with Huey Lewis and the News' song "Back in Time." So Part II was actually the first time where both opening and end credits were completely scored with orchestral music.

The second disc of the album is dedicated to alternate takes of tracks in the score, but I must say that even as it fan, it's hard for me to perceive the differences in most of them. I'd say the most noteworthy alternates are the disc 2 takes on the bookends of the film, the opening "Back to Back" and closing "I'm Back." The alternate takes frame the movie with a very ominous treatment of the first three notes of the Back to the Future theme, quite dark and rather inappropriate for the overall light tone of the film. It's an interesting (and appropriately discarded) take on the music.

But ultimately, this is a score that only hardcore fans of Back to the Future (or film scores) need in their library. There's little here you can't get in better form on the soundtrack for the first film. I give the Back to the Future Part II soundtrack a B-.

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