Review: Back to the Future In Concert – A 1.21 jigawatt experience

Erin Harrington reviews Back to the Future: In Concert, presented by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra under Chief Conductor Benjamin Northey, at the Christchurch Town Hall, Saturday 4 March, 2023.

Some incontrovertible facts about the 1985 time travel film Back to the Future: it smashed that year’s box office, it made the DMC DeLeorean a pop culture icon, and Alan Silvestri’s score absolutely slaps. This makes offering the film in concert an inspired choice for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. From an audience perspective, this offers a rare orchestral experience with truly cross-generational appeal, and an opportunity to revisit, or share, a classic of American film in a special way. The beloved score – originally written for a monster 98-piece ensemble – showcases the playfulness and versatility of the CSO, and particularly foregrounds the orchestra’s formidable brass section. This live concert presentation also features around twenty minutes of additional music from Silvestri, including incidental music, overtures, and credits music, which makes for a richer musical experience than just seeing the film itself.

The film centres on 17-year-old Marty McFly (Michael J Fox, who never seems to age) and his friend the eccentric scientist Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd, who looks 60 even when he’s 30). Marty is sent from 1985 to 1955 in Doc’s time machine, a modified DeLorean, where he accidentally disrupts his parents’ meet-cute and threatens his very existence. He has to reunite his parents and find a way to get home, with the help of a much younger Brown and a one-time-only electrical storm that can supply the car with enough energy to power its flux capacitor. The film is clever and funny, exciting and heartfelt, full of madcap energy and inspired, charismatic performances.

Silvestri’s score expresses some dramatic tensions, which are ably explored by the CSO. There is the contrast between the intimate scale of the small-town setting and the sweeping, heroic themes, which are best announced in the film’s well known ‘call to adventure’ fanfare. There is a push-pull between the narrative requirements of the 1950s and 1980s settings, but also the score’s nods to swashbuckling adventure films and 50s science fiction scoring (bowed cymbals, yes please), alongside shifting trends in blockbuster orchestration. And most pressingly, even though a time machine allegedly gives us all the time in the world, the action hinges on a life-or-death countdown in which everything is down to the last second.

This concert celebrates film-watching as a collective experience in a way that rarely happens in an age where we tend to watch things at home, distracted across devices, and not as intended. The auditorium of the Town Hall is at capacity, filled with a couple of thousand punters who are bouncing around on their seats. CSO Chief Conductor Benjamin Northey – who comes out waving a skateboard – encourages us to engage loudly with the film. So we whoop at the eerie, twinkling glockenspiel motif that opens the film and accompanies later moments of wonder. We cheer as the film’s heroic theme finally blasts out, twenty minutes into the film, as Marty speeds his way out of danger and into 1955. We boo and heckle the baddies, shout as Marty zips around on his skateboard, and roar as George biffs Biff. Kapow!

The highlight of the evening is the film’s crescendo: an impeccable eleven-minute sequence, scored as “It’s Been Educational / Clocktower”. It begins with sweeping romantic strings and reeds as Marty leaves his newly-connected parents, only to have this reverie interrupted by a reminder of the urgency of the task at hand. Dramatic ascending strings, whipping like the wind, are accompanied by rumbling timpani then a crash of brass: a reminder of the coming storm, and that time’s nearly out. This is a masterclass in action scoring that teases then finally combines the score’s varied themes. This sequence highlights the orchestra’s ability to carefully toy with restraint and tension, even within dense, frequently bombastic orchestration. It’s also a reminder to the viewer that a score is another player in the film, not just sonic wallpaper. The live presence of the music illuminates just how good the film’s editing is, and vice versa. My companion and I spend the sequence squirming with anxiety; it’s terrific.

There are some moments, especially early on, where the sound balance on the film’s dialogue isn’t quite right, but this is addressed quickly. It’s my only quibble – otherwise, the whole thing is impeccably presented and performed, and an absolutely joyful experience. It’s just as joyful to see people have such a good time playing together. Watching the orchestra throw themselves into the work is a show in itself. At the end they receive a jubilant, extended standing ovation – and I suspect by lots of people who would not have otherwise ever seen the orchestra play.

In the foyer after the concert people hang around getting their picture taken with a real life DeLorean. Artistic Director and deputy CEO Paul Christ mentions to my friend “we can do Mozart, and we can do this”. Boy, can they ever. One of my formative cultural experiences as a young person, maybe 25 years ago, was seeing the CSO accompany the 1924 silent film The Thief of Baghdad with a score that elaborated on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade suite. It blew my little mind, and changed the way I thought about film, music and performance. There’s no doubt that concert experiences like this will have the same impact on others.

1 thought on “Review: Back to the Future In Concert – A 1.21 jigawatt experience”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s