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Retooled 'Back to the Future' score gives the movie a new energy in concert

Retooled 'Back to the Future' score gives the movie a new energy in concert
Michael J Fox walkS across the street in a scene from the film "Back To The Future," 1985. (Universal Pictures / Getty Images)

The DeLorean? Sure. The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance? Probably. The flux capacitor? No doubt.

"Back to the Future" has more than its share of touchstones and memes, all the way back in 1985 when no one talked about memes. But among the Robert Zemeckis film's most striking aspects is its score, and composer Alan Silvestri's triptych of doom-tension-release that elevates the film's best moments.

On Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall, that score was in full effect as thousands, many in costume, packed the venue for the first of two dates of "Back to the Future in Concert," in which more than 80 orchestra musicians played the score live onstage with the movie unfolding behind them. It was part of the Film Concerts Live! series that will see a similar performance on more than a dozen dates in the months to come, at venues scattered from Chicago to Australia.

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It all seemed particularly timely given next week's celebrations of Back to the Future Day, in which Oct. 21 is commemorated as the date Marty lands on in the first sequel. (Worth noting: The Cubs may win the World Series, but we still don't have handheld plutonium processors, flying cars or, fortunately, those outfits.)

There was something enjoyably split-brained about watching the film in this live way — a classic on a screen and a concert right in front of you, each one receding when you chose to focus on the other. For many people most of the time, it was more likely the movie that predominated, the music seeming louder and more urgent than normal but still basically the same accompaniment we've known.

As it turns out, Silvestri actually created about 20 minutes of new music for the experience. He figured he needed to try something like that because a good chunk of the film passes by without music, particularly in the early expositional parts as Marty McFly goes through his 1985 high school paces, and having an orchestra sit onstage with little to do defeated the purpose of the whole thing.

"But I realized that if you do it in that quote-unquote new music way, it would be a distraction," Silvestri said in an interview. "I needed to find a way that it felt like it was always in the movie. And I wasn't sure how to do that."

The answer, it turned out (which he proceeded to seek after gaining the blessing of Zemeckis and writer-producer Bob Gale), was to look within the movie itself.

"I decided to mine the thematic material of the movie and the whole trilogy. So in Doc's lab early in the film I bring forward a little of the music from the clock tower scene. And in that scene of Lorraine at the dinner table, when she's reminiscing about how she met George, I'm actually using a little of the motif of 'Back to the Future 3,' which was kind of an innocent love story too. I just had to follow the sensibility of what the guys had done, really."

Silvestri's adjustments mirror how many audience members experience "Back to the Future," a  timeless classic that could be watched and enjoyed over the decades as one did the first time--yet, with its themes of family, regret and the passage of time, can also see its meaning shifted and bent to where we find ourselves in life.

Silvestri said he had some concerns with tampering with all this.

"It was terrifying. I was changing what some people called a perfect movie," he said. "But this became a different thing, somewhere between a musical and a cinematic event."

That was evident on Thursday. As Gale, Christopher Lloyd and the school principal, James Tolkan, took the stage before the performance, Gale addressed the audience.

"I hope there are no slackers here," he exclaimed. If they were, dozens of violinists, trumpeters and drummers snapped them right to attention.

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