Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction action comedy Back to the Future was, in spite of its troubled production, an unqualified success. With the President of the United States quoting the film’s script in speeches and over $300 million in the bank, the highest-grossing film of 1985 seemed like a sure thing for a sequel after its cheeky tease of an ending. But Zemeckis and his crew had larger aspirations, and they reunited for not one but two sequels filmed back-to-back in one of the earlier instances of this practice in Hollywood. The first fruit of their labors was 1989’s Back to the Future Part II which has always been regarded as a bit of a black sheep in the franchise due to both its comedic vision of the 2010s, its darker tone with an alternate 1985, and its cliffhanger conclusion with a literal advertisement for 1990’s Back to the Future Part III.
Alan Silvestri’s phenomenal orchestral score for Back to the Future had announced his arrival to the world and shown that he could handle far more than the simple electronics of Romancing the Stone. With that film and 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit strengthening their collaboration, there was never any doubt that Zemeckis and Silvestri would re-team for the sequels. Even so, Part II didn’t have the strong source music that the first film employed, with no original rock songs or period pieces to compete with the score, in theory allowing Silvestri a much larger canvas for his music.
As one might expect, the adventurous Back to the Future theme returns, given a full outing over Part II‘s opening credits unlike the silence and ticking clocks of the first film. There, and in the lengthy end credits arrangement, Silvestri gives the theme perhaps its most robust workout, adding jumpy passages for brass between some of its major phrases but otherwise leaving it largely identical in terms of instrumentation and structure. The sparkling discovery and wonder motif returns as well, peppered throughout the music, and the gentle theme for the friendship between Doc and Marty makes a few appearances.
For the futuristic world of hoverboards and flying cars that is Part II‘s 2015, Silvestri surprisingly doesn’t resort to synthesizers or attempt a futuristic rendition of any of his themes. Instead, he plays the film’s parallel scenes–wandering around the courthouse square, being chased by hoodlums–in almost an exact reprisal of music for similar moments in the original film. The same is true for later scenes which return to 1955 and show many of the first film’s scenes from a different angle, with nearly the same music altered to hit new script beats. Some material gets an extended performance compared to the first film, with the militaristic percussion mingled with optimistic thematic statements from the beginning of “Clocktower” being stretched into “Burn the Book” and the ominous action material for the Libyan terrorists adapted into “Tunnel Chase.”
In fact, the only really new material is related to the hellish alternate 1985 Marty McFly and Doc Brown inadvertently allow Biff Tannen to create, a plot twist that many reviewers at the time lambasted as confusing despite the film literally diagramming it onscreen. Dark, recoiling strings in “Alternate 1985” and skittering material in “If They Ever Did.” It’s creepily effective in the film but not the best listening on its own.
In 1989, the only music from Back to the Future that was available was the end credits suite and an arrangement of “Clocktower,” about 12 minutes out of nearly 50 Silvestri had written. Part II, on the other hand, was given a score-only album by MCA with 45 minutes of Silvestri music. This made the latter a substitute for the full Back to the Future score that would not arrive until 2009 and made its constant re-use and adaptation of enormous chunks of the original score, often basically unchanged, much more forgivable. After all, if a fan couldn’t hear “Twin Pines Mall ’85,” they could listen to basically the same material in “Burn the Book.” If they wanted “Skateboard Chase,” there was “Hoverboard Chase” hitting many of the same beats.
Intrada Records’ 2009 and 2015 releases of Back to the Future had the effect of making their sequel’s score much less interesting to listeners. Much of it seemed like a tuneful but pale retread, especially given the radical change of direction that came with Back to the Future Part III. Intrada would also release an expanded version of Part II in 2015, almost on the exact date that the film’s 2015 scenes were supposed to take place, expanding the MCA album’s 45 minutes to 65 and adding a second CD with 35 minutes of alternates. Though this expansion represents a score nearly 15 minutes longer than the original Back to the Future score, which had to tiptoe around songs, it’s still hard to escape from the feeling that the extra material, outside of the Alternate 1985 music, is more of a retread than an expansion.
Though regarded as something of a disappointment when it released, time has been kind to Back to the Future Part II. Many of the parallel and alternate timeline concepts it toyed with have become more mainstream, and its goofy vision of a 2015 with all the comforts of the 1980s but no internet or smartphones has become more hilarious as that year actually dawned. Alan Silvestri’s score for Part II has had the opposite happen; while it was a welcome antidote to the lack of a score album for the original film, that score’s release as made it seem largely redundant. Still, the potency of the original themes is undiminished, and Part II still represents the fullest expression of Silvestri’s original sound before the radical alterations he made for the third film. It was a long road for the score from stopgap replacement to expanded curio, but after all…where we’re going, we don’t need roads!