A recent installment of Open Mic Adventures inspired this pick, which I knew would show up on my list somewhere. I’m not sure where I intended to put it, but I knew it would be in the top five; indeed, it should probably be higher, but it’s fresh on my mind, so I’m putting it at #5.
The film is one of the enduring classics of the 1980s. It hit theaters on my half-birthday—3 July 1985—and was ever-present during my childhood on VHS (recorded from television broadcasts, of course). The film franchise even inspired the name of my old brass quintet, Brass to the Future.
The flick, of course, is Robert Zemeckis’s science-fiction classic Back to the Future (1985).
Back to the Future explores a fundamental human question: what if we could go back and do it all over again? Related to that, of course, is another question: how do the choices we make now affect our lives later?
When the film starts, Marty McFly is the plucky and energetic member of a family clearly down in the dumps. His father, George, is bullied and abused by his colleague, Biff Tannen. His mother, Lorraine, is an alcoholic. His brother and sister are both losers. Marty constantly runs afoul of his high school’s principal, and his band is rejected from the Battle of the Bands by none other than Huey Lewis.
Marty is also friends with the wacky Doc Brown, an elderly but spry inventor who has unlocked the secret to time travel, the flux capacitor. Being friends with a kooky bachelor scientist doesn’t exactly help Marty’s street cred, but it will lead to his redemption (and Doc’s), ultimately.
Doc Brown demonstrates his time machine to Marty by sending his dog, Einstein, one minute into the future. Marty is, of course, blown away—and, soon, blown to the past when Libyan terrorists arrive and murder Doc Brown. Marty accidentally accelerates to eighty-eight miles per hour and launches himself thirty years into the past, to the night that Doc Brown conceived of the flux capacitor after hitting his head on the toilet.
Then Marty prevents his father from getting hit by a car, leading to Marty’s mom falling in love with him instead of George. Yikes!
A great deal of the fun of Back to the Future is Marty discovering that his prudish, drunken mother was actually a vixen in her teen years, and that his dopey, nerdy father was a peeping Tom with a penchant for science-fiction. He also has to get his parents back together before he fades away from existence entirely, a process that inexplicably takes some time to occur, rather than being instantaneous.
There are so many iconic scenes from this flick. One of my favorites is when Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the high school dance, essentially inventing rock ‘n’ roll, and then devolves (evolves?) into Van Halen-style finger-tapping and noodling that leaves the attendees stunned:
“I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… but your kids are gonna love it.” And they did.
Pop culture in the 1980s was obsessed with the 1950s, just as pop culture a few years ago was obsessed with the 1980s (we’re currently obsessed with the late 1980s/early 1990s, with the rise of mullets and mom jeans). New Wave and punk both were basically 1950s pop and rock ‘n’ roll, just with synthesizers (New Wave) and/or sped up (punk). While the film depicts 1980s Hill Valley, California, as in decline and struggling, the 1980s and the 1950s do seem roughly analogous: times of material prosperity under respected, elderly, conservative presidents; times of an emerging religious revivalism coupled with a more hedonistic popular culture; and times of more traditional values championed in the public square.
But I digress. We all know the rest: Marty’s interference in the past reaps major dividends. His father does win over Lorraine, but not out of pity as before: this time, he slugs Biff Tannen, who is sexually assaulting her, and gains her respect. George becomes a successful science-fiction author, and all of the kids are living productive, happy, socially-active lives. Marty gets a sweet Jeep, and just before he and his girlfriend Jennifer take off for a weekend camping trip, Doc Brown shows up in the time machine, warning that Marty and Jennifer’s kids are in big trouble in the distant future—2015.
Everything about this movie is near-perfection. A good script makes sure that everything pays off in some way. Doing that with time travel had to be a daunting task, but the script pulls it off. Even the smallest details pay off in some way, and Back to the Future rewards repeated viewings, as you start to pick up on little things you may have missed the first (or second!) time.
Marty McFly became synonymous with 1980s cool. For me, he was the vision of cool, up there with Han Solo, in my childhood. About eleven years ago I actually bought a “Marty McFly” vest, which I still enjoy wearing from time to time. In 2015, my buddy John and I had the opportunity to play a gig based on the date that Doc, Marty, and Jennifer travel to at the end of the film and in its sequel, Back to the Future Part II (1989), and we had a blast covering tons of Eighties tunes (and “Earth Angel,” of course).
Needless to say, Back to the Future and its sequels loom large in my early childhood memories. We watched all the films on television and (probably) on VHS (recorded off of television) whenever they’d come on, and even today the flicks hold up. The timeless themes of fate, destiny, inter-generational relationships, and determination in the face of difficult odds keep Back to the Future relevant and relatable.
So watch this film and seize your own destiny. Make your own path.
To quote Doc Brown: “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.”