Women in Music 2016

Why 'Back to the Future' Composer Is Writing New Music for the Film

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Christopher Lloyd (as Dr. Emmett Brown), Michael J. Fox (as Marty McFly)

Alan Silvestri remembers his first conversation with Robert Zemeckis about Back to the Future.

In a church in Hollywood Heights, the director was shooting one of the film's climactic scenes, the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. The composer recalls showing up in the middle of the shoot: "I walk in, and Bob's obviously up to his eyeballs in work. After telling 7 or 8 people what to do, he comes over and says, 'Hey Al, how’s it going?' I say, 'oh, good,' " he tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"He looks back over his shoulder and lifts his hands up in the air, and he makes this gesture," continues Silvestri. "And he says, 'It's got to be big, Al. It's got to be big.' "

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It was the end of the meeting. "I went home and got nervous," says the composer. "One thing I have learned over the years with Bob is there is never a wasted word in anything that he communicates. This was so clear. It's got to be big." Back to the Future was big, launching a franchise still iconic 30 years since the first film's release — and transforming Silvestri's career, turning the jazz percussionist into an orchestral maestro with credits from Forrest Gump (for which he was nominated for the Oscar) to The Avengers.

Which is why his "face went pale" when his agent suggested he write new music for a Back to the Future concert tour, he says. The series, produced by Film Concerts Live!, a joint venture of IMG Artists and Silvestri's agency Gorfaine/Schwartz, will feature 20 minutes of new score by the composer, played live over a screening of the first Back to the Future film. The tour will stop in Los Angeles for a Hollywood Bowl performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on June 30 and continue worldwide.

Why the new music? Silvestri explains the concert producers wanted to feature Back to the Future for the film's 30th anniversary, but there's not much music in the film's first half. The composer became intrigued with the project, but what sealed the deal was Zemeckis and writer-producer Bob Gale's blessing. "I felt actually OK with talking to the guys about this because [the concert] would be a different venue, a different setting. If people wanted to see the movie exactly as it is, the theater is the place to go," says Silvestri. "I wound up having dinner with both, and their response was immediate, and it was, 'that sounds great!' "

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His new contributions aren't entirely new, either. Many of the updates are themes from the three Back to the Future films, introduced into the concert score for foreshadowing. "So much of Back to the Future is setting up things you see later in the film," he says, and the music works the same way. In one instance of which Silvestri is particularly proud, he scored Doc (Christopher Lloyd) and Clara's (Mary Steenburgen) love theme from Back to the Future Part III over the first film's dinner table scene in which Marty’s mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) wistfully remembers how she met her husband (Crispin Glover).

"All the ideas of writing, in big quotation marks, 'writing new music' felt wrong. It felt like this was not the opportunity for Alan to write new music for a classic film," says Silvestri, who often speaks in the third person. "I revisited the film and looked for the best way to add music we would all feel was naturally there."

The composer considers Back to the Future one of his career's turning points. The jazz drummer and guitarist found his way to scoring with the highway patrol sitcom CHiPs ("they wanted a young rhythm guy, and I kind of fit the bill") and connected with Zemeckis on Romancing the Stone, leading the director to offer him Back to the Future. "Bob just felt like, wow, Al can do anything, but Al wasn't so sure," he says. Both CHiPs and Romancing the Stone were rhythmically driven scores, but Zemeckis wanted orchestral for Back to the Future. Silvestri says he taught himself to write for orchestras while simultaneously completing Back to the Future and the Kevin Costner drama Fandango.

"It was a true trial by fire, I would either make it or I wouldn’t make it," says Silvestri. "I was living in a level of stress and fear that’s rather unspeakable."

He did make it, of course. He recently completed his 18th film with Zemeckis, The Walk, in which Joesph Gordon-Levitt plays real-life tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who strung a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. In the interim, he's composed for films in every genre and in musical styles from big-band to big superhero overtures. "It's kind of fun at this point to have had the experience to be able to say, whatever the film needs, I feel comfortable going there," he says.