The Very 1950s Music of ‘Back to the Future’

One of the best moments in cinema is when Marty McFly turns the corner and finds himself face to face with Main Street, Hill Valley, in November of 1955. In this classic scene setter in Back to the Future, Marty reads a poster promoting showings of the 1954 film Cattle Queen of Montana, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. That information comes into play later in the film – just about everything in Back to the Future has purpose.

At that same moment, “Mr. Sandman” by the Four Aces begins.

It’s the inferior “Mr. Sandman,” as we’ve discussed previously – the Chordettes perform the definitive, sprite and superbly produced version. The record store advertises new singles: “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Fess Parker and “16 Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Other record covers: “Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole, Patti Page’s In the Land of Hi-Fi, and Eydie Gorme’s Eydie in Dixieland. There is an issue here, however: Both the Page and Gorme albums were released after 1955; in fact, Gorme’s came out in 1959.

Nevertheless, the scene is set: This is a different time.

Music plays a critical role in Back to the Future, helping to set scenes and even draw attention to the characters. For example, there’s Marty’s big moment on stage at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, where he helps Marvin Berry and the Starlighters finish a performance so Lorraine Bates and George McFly can kiss. The group plays “Earth Angel” by the Penguins when the big kiss occurs (one of the most satisfying moments in film history), and afterward, Marty breaks into the “new” sound of 1958: “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.

“Earth Angel” is one of the two current Hall of Songs nominees that shows up in the movie. The Starlighters also play “Night Train” by Jimmy Forrest as teenagers twirl about on the dance floor. We also get some nominee-adjacent tunes, such as the Four Aces’ version of “Mr. Sandman” and “The Wallflower” by Etta James, an answer song to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie.”

But it ain’t all 1950s tunes in Back to the Future. Of course, Huey Lewis and the News pops in, but so does Eddie Van Halen. And that one, like just about everything in the film, has a purpose.

Leave a Reply