Welcome back nostalgia hounds! This week in our 80s Movie Challenge (#80smc) we give you a break from 1987 and the brilliant Jane Roberts takes you back in time even further to look at the start of one of the most beloved movie franchises of the 80s and 90s (well, all-time really). Over to you Jane…
Back in the dim mists of early 1986, I was a teenager in search of an icon. Many had come before – James Dean dishing up teen angst in Rebel without a Cause, the beautifully smouldering Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront, Mark Hamill’s fresh-faced Luke Skywalker for the 70s.
But the 80s was a new decade, one which would spike the ozone layer with extraneous use of hairspray and new romanticism. MTV had taken over music, with its bright breezy VJs giving us popcorn sounds and great videos full of brightness, wayward clothing and Simon Le Bon almost drowning on a waterwheel. Western politics pushed the idea of optimism, of a belief in hard work and low taxation, albeit overshadowed by the clanging chimes of a nuclear war threat and starvation in Africa.
At the turn of 1986, I was approaching fourteen and beginning to find my own cultural feet. Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future was released in December 1985, but it was into the howling teeth of new year weather that I remember queuing around the block of Newcastle’s antiquated ABC Westgate Road (formerly the Essoldo) cinema to see it for the first time. I loved Star Wars and Gremlins, hated anything I classed as soppy. Including E.T. I wasn’t really reckoning on falling in love.
Through the art deco doors, and into the warmth of the cinema, we rushed into the grand auditorium to grab good seats. A gaggle of teenage girls unleashed. Squabbled over Maltesers, who got the end of the row. Watched the adverts, giggled, squirmed and then were bored silly by the music promo video played before the feature film.
Lights down, eyes forward. Followed by two hours of absolute bliss. From the moment we enter Doc Brown’s lair, following Marty’s footsteps as he walks through the chaos of clocks and creative debris, I was hooked. Plug me into that amp and blow me backwards. That’s how that film made me feel.
Marty emerges, buffeted and smiling, in his iconic double denim and red padded windbreaker. He should look like a Status Quo roadie. Instead, he is fresh-faced and cute as a kitten. And in that cinema, a hundred teenage hearts melted. Including mine.
Hats off here to Michael J. Fox. He was a late addition to the cast, due to his commitments to Family Ties, and boy does he make the role his own. He brings wide-eyed charm, boyish good looks and a sweet vulnerability along with great comic timing. The supporting cast was also superb, from sluttish mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), dithering father George (Crispin Glover), erratic genius Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). All note-perfect.
For the next two hours, we were swept away with the film, buffeted along by stonking music throughout (check it out on Spotify here). The Power of Love by Huey Lewis & The News was the epitome of the 80s power ballad, sending a surge of hormonal adrenaline kicking trough the veins as Marty’s prowess with a skateboard unfolded before our eyes. Let’s be frank – the kids in urban Gateshead were far more likely to be chucking one another in the school rubbish bins and carving up seats on dusty double-decker buses than to be coolly skateboarding along on the back of a flatbed truck. This was teenage utopia.
Back to the Future introduced me to a new concept – nostalgia. It is absolutely dip-dyed in the 50s candy-coated aesthetic. Mint green, baby pink. Beautiful, hopelessly impractical cars. Corner cafes with jukeboxes and milkshakes. Cookie-cutter pretty, though with darker undertones. Bullying in the 50s was as painful as bullying in the 80s (and to date). You see the effect on George, in his weedy, subservient incarnation at the start of the movie. It sets a template for his future, in which his potential is held back by fear. One simple act of courage in his tweaked lifeline spins that whole dynamic on its head.
The film ended. We immediately wanted more. Three times we queued in the peeing rain to satisfy our cravings. Each viewing revealed the film to be multi-layered and expertly crafted. Little touches pleased, such as the changes of name from Twin Pine Mall to Lone Pine Mall, after Marty squishes one of the signature pines. Marty talking to Uncle Jimmy as a kid in the 50s, telling him ‘Better get used to those bars, kid’, in reference to his later career as a jailbird.
There’s a host of these small but significant changes in the time continuum throughout, ably outlined in this excellent article over at Den of Geek, 88 Geeky Spots in Back to the Future.
Mr Fox himself became my first bedroom pinup, starting discreetly on the inside of my wardrobe door before moving on out to spawn across the walls. He seemed approachable, affable. Eminently dateable. The nice boy every mother would like to be brought home.
I bought into the merchandise big style. Panini sticker album? Check – complete all bar one picture that resisted me, regardless of how much money I squandered on those skinny sticker packs. I suspect mine was consigned to the dustbin of history when I hit peak goth a few years later – a whopping mistake if current eBay prices are to be believed.
There was also a trend of novelising successful films, and I read my copy by George Gipe obsessively (along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Loved the eyeball soup scene). We didn’t own a video player at the time, so it was left to the words on the page to conjure up a vision of MJF on my inward eye. Well, that and the fact he was my teenage wallpaper.
So how does the film stack up, thirty-five years down the tracks? Well, I suspect it’s aged better than me. That tight, smart script stands up to scrutiny. The DeLorean time machine still looks like a machine out of time. Visual effects may be a little dated, but much of it was simple – like the visual simplicity of the Flux Capacitor, now adopted into regular speech (well, okay amongst geeks perhaps!). The use of the radiation suit to turn Marty into a 50s Martian, scaring the toenails off the family at the Twin Pines farm. That lone pine, standing sentry on his return to the future. The film remains a TV staple, bearing repeated viewing.
This film reminds me of giggling with friends in the cinema, dizzily anticipating the lights going down. Of my first proper superstar crush. Of my first appreciation of the nuts and bolts of how a film was hinged together, with clever reference points coming full circle without battering you over the head with their significance. It brought me nostalgia and shone a light into the world of my parents. It showed how one act of courage can spin a life in a new direction.
It brings me simple, uncomplicated joy. And that is a gift.
Thanks for that brilliant trip back in time Jane! Join us again next Friday as Paul (along with some very special guests) is back in 1987 (again), this time looking at the teen vampire romp The Lost Boys!