Tag Archives: Back To The Future

Rocks In The Attic #554: Various Artists – ‘Weird Science (O.S.T.)’ (1985)

rita554“She’s alive…!”

It’s not surprising how madcap a Danny Elfman film score can sound when you consider the output of his former band, Oingo Boingo. Their title track to this film is insane, and really sets the scene for such an off-the-wall comedy. I’m not really a fan of key changes in songs – or modulations, to use the correct term – but the one in Oingo Boingo’s Weird Science really amps up the song, and creates an excitement in those opening credits that sets up the tone of the film really well.

The rest of the record is the sort of passable ‘80s fluff that tends to dominate film soundtracks from this era. Cheyne’s Private Joy sounds like a poorly sung demo recording, Max Carl’s The Circle tries its hardest to be a Bryan Adams song, and the record just goes on and on like this. One wonders how much money they had to spend on the soundtrack, when it’s populated by such mediocrity.

Of course, this is still 1985 and the power of the 1980s pop soundtrack hadn’t really hit until that same year, with The Power Of Love from Back To The Future. Even a hit like 1984’s Ghostbusters soundtrack was populated by a couple of naff songs. I wonder whether the soundtrack to Weird Science would have been a little stronger had the film been released a year later?

Hit: Weird Science – Oingo Boingo

Hidden Gem: Eighties – Killing Joke

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Rocks In The Attic #509: Don Davis – ‘The Matrix (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#509I love The Matrix. It’s one of my favourite films of the ‘90s; probably my favourite science-fiction film of that decade. It’s an awesome movie, but I think I like it more for what it represents than for what it actually is. For me, the Matrix represents a truly wonderful thing – the end of George Lucas’ reign over special-effects movies in Hollywood.

Yes, Lucas was responsible for a great deal of my childhood cinema: the three original Star Wars films, and the three original Indiana Jones films. A round of applause, please. But that’s it. Nothing else. His 1973 breakout hit American Graffiti might be an enjoyable slice of 1950s nostalgia, but Back To The Future did it much better in 1985. And let’s not get started on the Star Wars prequels or the fourth Indiana Jones film.

His legacy is one of the things that ultimately curses him: Industrial Light & Magic. The special effects house set up to handle the myriad of effects shots in the first Star Wars film ultimately came to monopolise Hollywood in the decades that followed. The company may have been trendsetters in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they hit a peak with the groundbreaking effects in 1992’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but by the late 1990s they had lost their edge. Nothing was special anymore; they had become complacent. The company that had once blown everybody away were now resting on their laurels.

Then a film was released in 1999 out of nowhere. Titled The Matrix, it was written and directed by brothers Larry and Andy (now Lana and Lilly) Wachowski, responsible at that point for only directing one film, Bound (1996), a crime thriller starring Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

The Matrix came along with no hype. From the outside it looked like just another science-fiction film out of Hollywood, with a steam-punk aesthetic that we had seen before in dull gothic flicks like The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998). The lack of advance word even led to UK film magazine Empire relegating the film to its ‘Also released this month” section.

I saw the film at the cinema with my good buddy Stotty. Talk about being blown away. I was so engrossed that a Coca-Cola-induced urge to go to the toilet mid-way through had to be repressed. I wasn’t going to miss a second of this, particularly after being sideswiped by the film’s major left turn around twenty minutes in.

The idea, in retrospect, is simple: introduce the audience to the main character, then towards the end of the first act, suggest that the narrative you’re following is a fallacy, and that the film’s protagonist is being similarly hoodwinked. Hollywood had recently provided a film with a similar narrative hook, in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). Truman Burbank figures it out for himself when he overhears some radio chatter, almost gets pulverised by a studio light falling out of the sky, and notices the regularity of people bicycling down his street, but in The Matrix, our protagonist relies on others to wake him from his dream. Films ever since have played with the elastic nature of narrative. It seems like they’re ten a penny these days, but back in the late ‘90s it felt refreshing and new.

Everything about The Matrix seemed well thought-out. The design, the cast, the music, the sound, the editing, everything; but what grabbed people most of all were the special effects. The Wachowskis rewrote the book, taking their lead from the infinite possibilities of Japanese Anime rather than traditional Hollywood special effects. Finally, seven years following Terminator 2: Judgement Day, here was something that we hadn’t seen before: Bullet Time.

John Gaeta from Manex Visual Effects, working out of Alameda, California, developed a prototype of the effect prior to the film, and the Wachowskis jumped on it. Gaeta’s concept was based on an old idea – that a moving image is simply a sequence of still images played at high speed – but Gaeta’s application of the method to film action sequences was ingenious.

A simple stunt, for example one character jumping up to kick another character, could be transformed from something very simple to something extraordinary. A rig featuring dozens of still cameras would bet set up around the actors, and the cameras would shoot the movement in the scene, before being compiled together to form a moving image. By employing a fairly simple idea, the filmmakers created the illusion of movement around the action, capturing the shot at super-slow motion, but still travelling at high-speed, hence ‘bullet’ time.

There’s an element of The Matrix borne out of a clichéd Hollywood trope – that of the white male protagonist being the saviour of the universe, or the ‘one’ as Neo’s anagrammatical name would suggest – but despite this, the films manages to still feel fresh. The main protagonist is derivative to a degree, taking the base elements of George Lucas’ original Star Wars conceit – that our hero is possessed with a magical ability to transcend all evil forces – but there’s so much innovation in the film, it’s easy to overlook this. It’s like receiving a pair of socks on Christmas Day, but finding that they turn you invisible when you put them on. Erm, thanks Aunty Flo.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Matrix without mentioning the sequels. At the time, they were exciting but just like the Star Wars prequels from George Lucas (him again), they suffered from a preponderance of weightless digital effects and little in the way of practical effects. Most Hollywood sequels are lazy rehashes of the same ideas that made the first film so interesting. The Wachowskis couldn’t be accused of this though; if anything, they overthought their sequels, giving them a highbrow slant that hasn’t been see in a sequel since The Godfather Part II.

It’s great to have Don Davis’ score to the film on this lovely slab of green wax. I probably enjoy the score as much as I love the pop soundtrack, which despite a few timeless classics is starting to feel very much of its time. I’m not familiar with Don Davis’ other work, but this is a great score – and its refreshing for a big action film to be scored by somebody other than John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman or Hans Zimmer.

Hit: Main Title

Hidden Gem: Welcome To The Real World

Rocks In The Attic #401: James Brown And His Famous Flames – ‘Please Please Please’ (1959)

RITA#401As far as debut records go, this has to be one of the most unlike the same artist’s future output. Compared to the deep funk of the late ‘60s into the ‘70s, this sounds very tame. But compared to contemporary records, it sounds anything but.

The instrumentation on this record doesn’t sound a million miles from the band at the dance scene in Back To The Future – the basic line-up of guitar, upright bass, drums and piano, augmented by the occasional blast of saxophone. The choice of material is also very similar – Night Train, heard in the film as George McFly dances by himself, was recorded by Brown’s band in 1961, later appearing on the seminal Live At The Apollo album.

The sawdust is already in Brown’s voice, as is the raw, burning sound of integrity like he’s singing about the end of the world. He’s just not singing about hot pants yet. If he had at this point in his career, he would have been viewed in retrospect as some weird Nostradamus figure – hot pants hadn’t been invented yet. And young ladies were far from being objectified as sex machines.

Hit: Please, Please, Please

Hidden Gem: Chonnie-On-Chon

Rocks In The Attic #398: Various Artists – ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds’ (1978)

RITA#398I was listening to a film podcast the other day – the BBC Radio 5 Live radio show with Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode – and they were talking about must-see films for kids to watch before they reach the age of 10. Listeners were emailing with their suggestions and the usual suspects came up, leading to a definitive list being drawn up by the end of the show:

1. Karate Kid
2. Spirited Away
3. Finding Nemo
4. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
5. Star Wars
6. The Goonies
7. Watership Down
8. To Kill A Mockingbird
9. The General
10. Big

I’d agree with most of those – it’s bloody hard to pull such a list together with so many choices. Where’s Back To The Future? Where’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark? Ghostbusters? Jaws? What about the James Bond films – a multitude of options?

On the show, they were talking about films with a scary element or an emotional edge to them, which are usually the ones that stick in your mind at that age – hence Spirited Away and Watership Down in the list. I’d put Stand By Me in there also – although I’d probably only show that to a 9 or 10 year old. That Ray Brower kid by the train tracks probably isn’t a good sight for a 6 year old. I’d also put a wildcard in too – Joe Dante’s Explorers, from 1985 – a film that should have received a lot more attention than it ultimately did.

If I had to choose, my top 10 would be:

1. Star Wars
2. Jaws
3. Ghostbusters
4. Raiders Of The Lost Ark
5. Stand By Me
6. Explorers
7. Back To The Future
8. The Goonies
9. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

..and my last on the list would be…

10. Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds

Okay, so it’s not a film. But what other top 10 list for kids is it going to go on? Top 10 musicals? Surely only effeminate boys with an unhealthy interest in dressing up in Mummy’s clothes would be concerned with such a list. Top 10 prog-rock double albums? I’m not sure you’ve ever asked an 8-year old to listen to The Wall, but the nightmares inside the mind of Roger Waters aren’t for developing minds. Top 10 spoken word recordings by Richard Burton? The horror!

No, I put War Of The Worlds in there because it’s so good at drawing a visual picture of what’s going on (assisted by the great drawings in the booklet) that it might as well be a film. A great story (courtesy of H.G. Wells of course), great music, great narration by Burton and appearances by the likes of Justin Hayward, David Essex and Phil Lynott – what more could you want? Except a pair of huge headphones so you can really immerse yourself in the story). Jeff Wayne really pulled together something magical.

And for Bond films, I’d expect any 10 year old to have seen them all by that age anyway!

Hit: The Eve Of The War – The Black Smoke Band, Justin Hayward & Richard Burton (narration)

Hidden Gem: Horsell Common And The Heat Ray – The Black Smoke Band & Richard Burton (narration)

Rocks In The Attic #373: John Carpenter & Alan Howarth – ‘They Live (O.S.T.)’ (1988)

RITA#373This night not be my favourite John Carpenter soundtrack, but it’s definitely one of my favourite John Carpenter films. It’s the antithesis of all those happy-go-lucky, optimistic ‘80s films – where the subtext was that in America, everything was yours for the taking. In They Live, we find that America belongs to somebody else and the sleeping majority are majorly asleep.

I probably first saw the film in 1990. I had been rapidly consuming American films around that time, and I had already started watching John Carpenter’s back catalogue – pretty much starting at the beginning with Dark Star and Assault On Precinct 13, and moving on through Halloween, The Fog and Escape From New York.

In April of1990, on the advice of a school friend, I watched the live broadcast of Wrestlmania VI. I was in the right place at the right time – my family had just got Sky TV, and the flashy, new WWF wrestling was one of its big draws. My favourite wrestler, ever since I saw him pitched against Bad News Brown at Wrestlemania was Rowdy Roddy Piper. He didn’t seem as fake as all the others and he seemed genuinely pleased to use humour to defeat his opponents.

So when the next John Carpenter film on my list came along, and I found out that Roddy Piper was the star, it just seemed like a great combination – films and WWF, it couldn’t get any better. I didn’t have any reservations that Piper couldn’t act – because, well, they’re all actors at the end of the day aren’t they? – I just accepted him as Nada, the loner hero of the film. I’d seen a film – No Holds Barred, starring Hulk Hogan – around the same time, and while that film wasn’t anything to write home about, They Live had the mark of a great director.

It’s probably one of my favourite films of the 1980s. There are many popular classics of that decade – The Blues Brothers, E.T., Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future – but They Live wins points because it flew under the radar. To this day, I still meet people well versed in half a dozen of the more well known Carpenter films, but who have never seen They Live.

I have to get me some more of these fantastic John Carpenter soundtrack reissues. This particular one is a lovely transparent vinyl.

Hit: Coming To L.A.

Hidden Gem: Wake Up

Rocks In The Attic #329: Huey Lewis & The News – ‘Fore!’ (1986)

RITA#329A definite guilty pleasure, this is the first album I ever remember owning. I doubt we actually owned a copy though, we probably borrowed the LP from the library and taped it. Thank you Oldham libraries. Still, it’s the first record I remember playing over and over. Passion for the album undoubtedly came from the inclusion of The Power Of Love from the soundtrack to the first Back To The Future film. Strangely, the track was only added to the European and Japanese releases of the album, which means that in their native country the album had to stand up on its own merits.

I remember getting a lot of stick for liking Huey Lewis & The News at the time. They weren’t cool, and that doesn’t seem to have changed over time. There’s a great reference to the band in an episode of the overlooked sitcom Up All Night (with Christina Applegate and Will Arnett) where they try and impress a recently moved-in neighbour couple. When Will Arnett’s character attends their house-warming party dressed in a Huey Lewis t-shirt, he crumbles under questioning from his wife as to whether he’s wearing the t-shirt to be ironic or not. Man, I would love a Huey Lewis t-shirt – and not to wear ironically.

Obviously the other film to feature a song from this album is American Psycho, with Hip To Be Square used to soundtrack one of Patrick Bateman’s murders. In the excellent novel by Bret Easton Ellis, a whole chapter is devoted to the merits of Huey Lewis & The News (similar chapters are devoted to Whitney Houston and Phil Collins). The disappointing film adaptation does little to capture the wit of the novel, and Bateman’s short monologue about Huey Lewis is the only concession to these bizarre chapters amongst Bateman’s obsession with ‘80s fashion and the aesthetics of business cards.

The Power Of Love is one of those movie soundtracks songs from the ‘80s that I don’t think I will ever get bored of (it doesn’t hurt that Back To The Future is such a strong film). I guess when you think about it, it’s strange that the song chosen to musically represent the film’s protagonist espouses the virtues of love, while the film ends on such a materialistic note (which would have been far worse if Crispin Glover’s claims are anything to go by). Marty’s return to Jennifer, and subsequent kiss, almost seem to take second-billing to the revelation that Marty’s father is now a successful author and can afford to buy Marty a brand-new pickup truck. The sequel’s convoluted storyline takes this a cynical step forward with Marty attempting to use time-travel to win sports bets for monetary gain.

Or maybe you shouldn’t think too hard about ‘80s films…

Hit: The Power Of Love

Hidden Gem: Naturally

Rocks In The Attic #136: Huey Lewis And The News – ‘Sports’ (1983)

There’s an amusing spelling mistake on the cover of this album. You don’t tend to see typos like this on album covers, and probably for a good reason given the amount of money it takes to get an album out, and the considerable sum it is then expected to make back. On the album credits, the album is listed as being ‘recored’, instead of ‘recorded’ by Jim Gaines. Oh dear, I’m sure a young executive at Chrysalis Records felt the heat the day this record was pressed.

In the wake of Back To The Future, and their hit-single The Power Of Love, Huey Lewis And The News were my favourite band – at least for a few years until they fell of my radar and were replaced by the 1987 version of Michael Jackson. To my ears at least, their brand of rock n’ roll doesn’t sound too dated – even though on paper they should.

Any rock album of the mid-‘80s, especially one with saxophone and keyboards, runs the risk of now sounding irrelevant, but on this album, and it’s follow up, Fore!, they don’t sound too bad. Huey Lewis’ vocals soulful vocals definitely help, but perhaps it’s also because of Lewis’s background with ‘70s San Fransisco band Clover, and the fact that he was already an established recording artist, working through the ‘80s, not as a product of the ‘80s, and able to cleverly sidestep any of the now-dated clichés from that decade. I’m sure that the fact that this album was self-produced didn’t hurt either – away from the influence and gimmickry of the latest hot-shot ‘80s producer.

Hit: I Want A New Drug

Hidden Gem: Bad Is Bad