I remember when I first watched Back to the Future. I think I was 7 years old, and my mind was completely blown: by the premise, by the acting, by the sheer wildness of Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) adventure back in time. And then I remember finding out that the movie had been made and took place in 1985, and I felt so extremely disappointed.
I was born in 1985.
I wished, desperately, that I had been born a decade earlier, so that I could have been around to see Back to the Future when it had first come out, so I could have been a part of the original hoopla around the film, and really joined in on the fandom as it was happening in real time.
Alas, I had no DeLorean time machine to make this happen. I could only watch this movie from a remove, a step behind everyone else who had seen it in theaters originally, and speculate on what my life might have been like if my parents had married a couple of years earlier and decided to have me soon after. In the meantime, all I could really marvel at was that Back to the Future was my age. That was kind of cool in its own way. Less cool than if I’d been there to see it in real time, but not too shabby.
I have seen this movie many, many times since then, and I rewatched it yet again a couple of days ago to refresh my 35-year-old COVID-19-lockdown-addled-brain memory. (Coronabrain, folks. It’s a real thing.) It’s always a really fun trip to get into this story again, but the first thing that always makes me chuckle is Huey Lewis & the News singing, "The Power of Love," written specifically for the film, right in the beginning. See, I know Huey Lewis. Or rather, I know his son – he was in my class in high school in San Francisco (hi Austin, if you’re reading!). And I did meet Mr. Lewis once, late in my senior year, when he came to some sort of random cabaret performance that the school was putting on, and me and my friend Meghan sang a duet: “Nobody’s Got No Class” from the musical Chicago.
Mr. Lewis pulled me aside after the show. “Hey, that was really great! You’ve got a killer voice!” he said.
Any sense of articulate thought vanished from my brain.
“OHMYGODTHANKYOUSOMUCHTHAT’SSONICEOFYOUOHMYGOD THANK YOU MR. LEWIS!!!”
He grinned. “You can call me Hugh. Awesome job, seriously.” And then he vanished into the crowd, and I did the Snoopy dance in my head.
Huey Lewis himself makes a cameo early on in the film, as one of the teachers evaluating whether Marty’s band can play at the next school dance. “Hold it fellas,” he says, stopping their audition, “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud.” And when I watch this now, I feel myself grinning, knowing that I know Huey Lewis, and just how darn nice he is, remembering him paying me that amazing compliment back when I was 18 years old, not even knowing that 13 years later I was going to start trying to be a musician myself.
Nostalgia, man. Nostalgia for the past and nostalgia for the future that you don’t even know. Isn’t that what Back to the Future is all about, at its core?
I write a lot about nostalgia when I write about films – much like my Story Screen colleague Mike Burdge, who often looks at filmmaking through the lens of it being a tool for building empathy (which I certainly agree with), I tend to look at it as a lens through which storytellers can create a path toward nostalgia. To lean on a quote from Mad Men that I maybe lean on too often, “…in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
I’m not going to sit here and recap the plot of this film for you – you wouldn’t be reading a 35-year retrospective on Back to the Future if you hadn’t already seen it. And I’m not going to unpack a Freudian reading of 1955-era Lorraine (Lea Thompson) being attracted to the boy she doesn’t know is her son, Marty, accidentally transported back from 1985 after a mishap with Doc Emmett Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) time machine. Tons and tons of film scholars have done that already, way better than I could here (I graduated from film school in 2007 and became an accountant). You can find lots of essays on that topic easily with a quick Google search.
I’m here to talk about the multiple layers of nostalgia that exist within this film. Marty’s nostalgia for Doc Brown while he’s hanging out with him in 1955, knowing that 30 years later, his friend and mentor will be killed by Libyan terrorists. (Yeah, some of this movie has not aged well...). In that moment, it’s simultaneously nostalgia for Marty’s past and nostalgia for Doc Brown’s future. There’s Marty’s parents’ nostalgia for the high school dance where they met and fell in love – both the original version of the story from the beginning of the movie, when this memory is bittersweet for George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine because of how disappointing their lives turned out, and the new version, once Marty accidentally changes the trajectory of George and Lorraine’s meet-cute while he’s stuck in 1955, when the memory is just plain sweet, because their lives have been so happy and successful ever since. There’s Marty’s future nostalgia for his timid father George when he meets him in 1955 and realizes that George has been timid all his life, and he thinks maybe he can help him with that, not realizing how profoundly it would change his family’s life. There’s Marty’s future nostalgia for his mother Lorraine, who he knows as a depressed, overweight alcoholic in his 1985 life, but who he sees anew in 1955 as a young, gorgeous girl, and he wonders what happened to her to make her so sad. And then of course there’s Doc Brown’s nostalgia – we learn that at the end of the film, he actually survives the terrorist attack. At some point between meeting Marty in 1955, and seeing him again in that parking lot late at night while testing the time machine in 1985, he thought back fondly to that weird kid from the future and decided to read the note Marty wrote him warning him about his death (despite his protestations about interfering with future events back in 1955), and he put on a bullet-proof vest, just in case.
Pains from old wounds, all of it.
This movie is a nostalgia machine. It runs and functions entirely on nostalgia. Nostalgia is the petrol in its pump, it’s the blood in its veins, it’s the phenomenon that propels Marty to fix the mistakes he accidentally makes in preventing his parents from meeting properly in 1955 when he crash lands into it, and it’s the phenomenon that causes him to be completely bowled over by how much his 1985 life changes when he finally comes back. Because he’s inadvertently fixed all of his family’s problems. Fixing his family, in 1955, was solely to ensure that he and his siblings wouldn’t vanish into the ether in 1985, as 1955 Doc Brown warns him could be possible. But when he returns to 1985, what he sees gives him that twinge in his heart more powerful than memory alone. He realizes he has made everything better for everyone in his life. Doc is alive, his family is thriving, and along the way he invented rock and roll…
…yeah. Let’s talk about that.
There are a few details about Back to the Future that I’d forgotten: the first of which is that Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) isn’t just a bully to George McFly (and everyone else), he’s a straight-up rapey bastard. First he feels up Lorraine repeatedly in school in 1955, and then attempts what looks like an actual rape in the car before the school dance, causing the confrontation between him and George that leads to George and Lorraine later falling in love. I remembered Biff as being a douchebag, but I did not remember that he was a rapist. So, that was unsettling.
Second, I’d forgotten the whole Libyan terrorists plotline: Doc Brown stole the plutonium he needed to power his time machine in 1985 from a group of Libyans who asked him to help them build a bomb. This leads to a shootout in the parking lot of the mall featuring a van full of straight-up Middle Eastern terrorist stereotypes yelling in faux Arabic. Um. Kind of icky.
(But it was 1985! But… yeah.)
And then of course, the icing on the cake: in 1955, after George saves Lorraine from being raped by Biff, Marty is asked to sit in on guitar with Marvin Berry & the Starlighters, the band playing at the dance, because in the process of dealing with Biff’s idiot friends in the parking lot, Marvin hurts his hand. Marty starts playing and singing “Johnny B. Goode,” and the rest of the band joins in. “All right guys,” Marty tells them, “this is a blues riff in B, watch me for the changes and try to keep up.” As I watched this the other day I thought: Oh my god, I’ve played this song in a band. I’ve played it in that key. 12 bar blues, don’t pass through the four on your way back down; keep it moving because it’s a fast, fast song. I didn’t know, when I was 7 years old, watching this movie for the first time, that 26 years later I’d be playing this exact same song on stage at a real music venue, and I felt that pang, that twinge in my heart for 7 year old me, watching this movie, knowing nothing about this song, knowing nothing about who I was going to grow up to be. “Johnny B. Goode” is a style of music the kids at this high school have never heard before in 1955, and they love it, dancing along enthusiastically. Partway through this sequence, we see Marvin Berry calling his cousin Chuck (yes, Chuck Berry), and telling him basically that he’s gotta listen to what this white boy is doing because it’s that “cool new sound” Chuck has been looking for for his own music.
Yeah, no. No. NO. Whitey white Marty McFly did not invent rock & roll. Marty McFly did not give Chuck Berry “Johnny B. Goode.” That is not a thing that happened, and this is straight-up offensive, especially given the current political climate. I just can’t with this, I can’t.
I never said this was a perfect movie.
I ended my rewatch of the movie awash with more nostalgia: look at how young Michael J. Fox was, how fresh-faced, how healthy. He was a baby. This was before we knew about his Parkinson’s Disease, and way before we could see the effects it had on his body. God, how time flies.
Look at how Christopher Lloyd somehow looks exactly the same as he did as Reverend Jim Ignatowski on the TV show Taxi – a show I used to watch on “Nick at Nite” as a child because it, too, was well before my time. Does this man age? Has he always looked old? Has he always looked crazy? He’s certainly always been hysterically funny.
Whatever happened to Lea Thompson? Didn’t she have a sitcom for a while? Where did Crispin Glover go? I think Glover’s performance in this film is a stroke of pure genius; he’s so affecting in his timidness in 1955. He’s so determined to do his best at Marty’s behest; he’s so sweet underneath his awkwardness. Where did he go?! I know he was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape but why can’t I see him now? Why didn’t he have a huge career as a character actor? Why wasn’t he everywhere? Why wasn’t he the eccentric weirdo in every movie ever since Back to the Future?
And then, my buddy Huey Lewis, ends the film with "The Power of Love" again. I actually think he has a killer singing voice too, even if Huey Lewis & the News as a band was a little on the dorky side (sorry Hugh (sorry Austin)). But the poor guy now has Ménière's Disease, and is suffering major hearing loss. He hasn’t performed live since 2018. This absolutely breaks my heart, especially remembering how kind he was to me that day I sang in the cabaret at my high school in 2003.
God, how time flies.
The Future sequels exist too; they are flawed, and nowhere near as worthwhile as the original. Back to the Future Part II did promise us flying cars by 2015, and I have yet to see that materialize (um, I’ve been waiting, why haven’t you invented the Flying Prius yet, Toyota Motor Company?!) And the filmmakers also screwed Crispin Glover over. They could not agree on the terms and money for him to appear in the sequels, so they reduced the role of George McFly and recast him. However, they also reused footage from Glover that had been filmed for the first movie, and the older footage was combined with new footage of the recast actor, who wore prosthetics and other obscuring garments (sunglasses, etc) to play down the fact that Glover wasn’t actually in the film. Glover subsequently sued the producers, claiming that they had used his likeness without his permission, and hadn’t paid him for reusing the old footage from the original film. As a result, there are now clauses in the Screen Actors Guild agreements which state that producers and actors are not allowed to use such methods to reproduce the likeness of other actors. So, good on Glover for making that happen for his fellow actors’ union members.
Back to the Future Part III is just awful. Skip it. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen, please. (Sorry, Mary Steenburgen.)
Back to the Future is 35 years old. I am 35 years old. This is a weird thing to think about on some level: being the same age as one of my favorite films. It’s even weirder to think that there was a time when I wished that by 2020, I would be 45 years old, so I could have experienced the Back to the Future phenomenon in real time. That’s definitely some 7 year old nonsense logic right there. Now, from where I sit… I’m good. 35 is good. I’m fine with it. This movie is as old as me, and like I said, that’s kinda cool. It’s become like a favorite sibling* or something. This film will always capture my imagination, no matter how old I am, no matter who I become. No matter how much time flies, Back to the Future will always be there, flooding Marty, George, Lorraine, Doc Brown, me – us – with the pain from those old but wonderful wounds, those twinges in the heart that only nostalgia can provide.
* NB: I’m an only child, please don’t @ me because I know this metaphor is a bit wonky.
Reeya is the Communications Director for Song-Smith, Inc, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that produces song•smith, a bi-monthly web series that spotlights songwriters in the Hudson Valley. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, sings and plays bass guitar, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.