'Back in Time': New box set celebrates 1985's movie music

The author with the new setKelsey/APM

June 22, 2015

Whether or not this new box set of film music is for you might come down to the "awesome" factor: looking at the cover illustration incorporating scenes from Back to the Future, Rambo, The Goonies, Brazil, and Cocoon will inspire a certain number of '80s pop culture buffs to say, "Awesome!" If you're one of them, you'll be happy to dig into Back in Time...1985 at the Movies.

Of all years, though, why 1985? The most accurate answer probably involves the fact that if you turned ten years old in 1985, like I did, you're now turning 40 and can be reasonably supposed to have the wherewithal to buy a six-disc set of music that triggers your nostalgia for those movies that played endlessly on HBO when you were a bored preadolescent. There are other reasons, though, too, and they have to do with recent developments at Varèse Sarabande.

The 43-year-old label has recently convened a new studio ensemble: the Varèse Sarabande Symphony Orchestra, which producer Robert Townson explains in a program note was inspired by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, "a London studio ensemble that was made up largely of musicians who were members of the city's principal classical orchestras." That orchestra, since disbanded, recorded scores ranging from Barry Lyndon to Alien to Total Recall; Townson thinks the time is once again ripe for a standing freelance studio orchestra dedicated to film scores.

The first disc of Back in Time marks the debut recording of that orchestra, the repertoire being associated with a June 11 "concert experience" called Back in Time...1985 Live! That Redondo Beach concert was the first in a planned series of events from the label's newly-formed Varèse Live, an initiative that "will build and tour branded concerts of live film music entertainment together with the world's best orchestras performing in the most desirable concert venues."

So, in other words, the new box set is one big advertisement for (perhaps they'd prefer "celebration of") Varèse Sarabande: its historic catalog, its new orchestra, and its forthcoming live events. That explains the peculiar programming of the set, which includes an entire disc dedicated to 1985 movie music specifically released on Varèse Sarabande. In other circumstances, for example, one might not have thought that a comprehensive summary of the year's movie music required only a single five-minute excerpt from Quincy Jones's Oscar-nominated Color Purple score but an 11-track suite from Danny Elfman's music for Pee Wee's Big Adventure.

That also accounts for the inclusion of complete soundtracks from Out of Africa and The Goonies (the 25th anniversary soundtrack including only Dave Grusin's instrumental score, so no Cyndi Lauper), as well as a disc featuring Alan Silvestri's music from the entire Back to the Future trilogy—the latter two films of which were released in 1989 and 1990, but the label had a pre-existing 1999 release with highlights from the three scores on a single disc, which became disc five of Back in Time.

None of this music is exactly rare, which makes $99.98 a pretty hefty price tag no matter how limited the edition of this LP-size package is. Still, Back in Time will be a fun set for those who relish the opportunity to dig deep into the music of what turned out to be a memorable year at the movies. There's even a disc of pop songs from 1985 movies, including hits like John Parr's "St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion)" and Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)" as well as (perhaps justly) neglected nuggets like Stephanie Mills's "Bit by Bit" (from Fletch) and Bryan Ferry's "Is Your Love Strong Enough" (from Legend). (Still no Cyndi Lauper, though.)

For movie music fans, what might be most interesting about this set is how uniformly symphonic the film scores of the mid-'80s were—in that sense, 1985 makes an apt annum for a newly-formed studio orchestra to highlight. While the era's pop musicians fetishized electronics, film composers were almost completely in thrall to the renaissance of orchestral movie music precipitated by John Williams's retro Star Wars scores. Whether they were asked to write music for an interstellar shoot-out, an Amish affair, an African odyssey, or a Cold War comedy, composers in 1985 responded with Straussian tone poems.

Whether the movie music of 1985 was objectively good—that is, significantly better than the movie music of any other given year—is now a question we're much better-prepared to assess, and I'm not sure the answer is yes. The new orchestra's energetic take on music from 16 films—including excerpts from all five Oscar-nominated scores (John Barry won for Out of Africa)—showcases composers' repeated attempts to find the Big Theme that would be as indelible as Williams's melodies from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or E.T. None of them are, but the collection makes for a fun listen if you have even the least bit of interest in forgotten films like Lifeforce and Revolution—the scores for which were composed by Henry Mancini (!) and John Corigliano (!!) respectively.

"The films of 1985," writes Townson in the set's notes, "in many ways represent a last hurrah, if you will, for a sort of innocent fun that many of us miss." I do miss the '80s, but I also remember us kids of "the MTV generation" being accused of lacking the innocence kids had 30 years prior, in the '50s. Come to think of it, didn't they make a movie about that?