The list of successful film composers is short indeed. The discipline is rarified and exceedingly specialized; the very few at the top of the game are highly sought-after artists. One member of this exclusive club is Carmel resident Alan Silvestri. This composer’s credits comprise some of the most famous and beloved films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. A (very) partial list: “The Abyss,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Back to the Future” (II, II and III), “Cast Away,” “Forrest Gump” (for which he received an Oscar nomination), “Polar Express” (another Oscar nod), “The Avengers” and the current release, “Allied.”
In his early Hollywood days, Silvestri even scored music for hit TV 1970s shows “CHiPs,” “T.J. Hooker” and “Starsky and Hutch.” He shows no sign of slowing down. His IMDB page lists three more films in various stages of production.
Fellow film composer, Carmelite and Hollywood refugee Mark Mancina marvels at his friend’s work ethic. “He’s always working on something,” he reflects. “He’s good about keeping busy.” Alan Anthony Silvestri was born in Manhattan and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. His first instrument was the drums, which he played in local bands, even landing some New York session work at age 15.
He also played saxophone and bassoon in high school, but “I wasn’t very good at it,” he recalls. “But somehow it all made sense to me.” One Christmas, he found a $15 guitar and a Mel Bay instruction book under the tree. “I loved it and sold the drum kit,” he says.
From Jazz to Soul
Silvestri’s ambition was to be a bebop guitar player and to that end he attended a summer program at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. “It was a unique place run by living, working jazz artists and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I went back after high school and stayed for almost two years.” Then came a call from Las Vegas. The guitarist for Wayne Cochran (“The White Knight of Soul”) and the CC Riders was leaving…would Silvestri be interested in the gig?
“I flew to Vegas and went to work with the band at the Flamingo Lounge,” Silvestri says. “It was a very cool time. Woody Herman and Ike and Tina [ Turner] were playing there. I lived in an apartment building with Jerry Lee Lewis on the floor below me and the Ikettes above.”
After the Vegas stand, the band hit the road, but the guitarist decided it was a zero-sum game. He left, eventually finding his way to Los Angeles, and found himself immersed in the world of composing music for films, beginning with 1972s’ “The Doberman Gang.”
“That led to TV work, and more films,” he says. “I can’t name the last live gig I played.”
Hello to Hollywood
Perhaps the most fortuitous day of Silvestri’s career was the one he met director Robert Zemeckis. Their fruitful collaboration began with 1984’s “Romancing the Stone,” and continues to this day. The composer has produced some of the most iconic and immediately recognizable music of his generation for Zemeckis’ films.
When asked how he views the role of music to the storytelling process of a film, instead of answering, Silvestri calls up the scene in “Forrest Gump” in which Forrest learns that he can run. He first plays a version of the scene sans accompaniment. It’s a stirring moment in young Forrest’s life, but the clip comes to life when it’s played again, this time containing the richly swelling crescendo of music that is a Silvestri trademark. The scene transforms from interesting
“Alan knows how to write a theme,” Mancina says. “That’s a bit of a lost art; there aren’t a lot of composers who can do that. He and John Williams can. As soon as you hear that theme—like“ForrestGump”—it puts you right into that film.”
“The music brings into relief what is happening emotionally on the screen,” Silvestri says. “It’s a powerful part of the equation. It’s part of why cinema is such a powerful medium.”
Frequent collaborator, songwriter Glen Ballard (they shared the Oscar nomination for “Believe” from “Polar Express” and are working on an upcoming stage musical version of “Back to the Future”) says: “I’m lucky to get to work with guys like Alan. It’s always a learning experience. He’s a true genius.”
Goodbye to Hollywood
Silvestri first visited Carmel around 1972 as part of a trip to Afghanistan with a group led by intrepid Carmel explorer Peterson Conway. After Alan and his wife Sandra married, they found themselves coming to visit the Peninsula once a year while living in LA. After they had their first child (daughter Alex was born in LA and two sons, Joey and James were born here) the couple decided that LA was perhaps not the best environment in which to raise a family. They considered Santa Barbara, but that was still too close.
“They could still make me drive down there,” Silvestri jokes. The couple found their Carmel Highlands property and have never looked back. “It was a big risk for Alan to leave Hollywood,” Sandra says. “But moving here was the best thing we ever did.”
The movie music magic happens in a tidy stone building set on the park-like grounds of the Silvestris’ home. Surrounded by one large and three smaller video monitors, keyboards and an array of guitars and computer equipment, he looks like he could be directing a space shuttle mission instead of scoring a movie. Identical setups are at the family’s Carmel Valley property and in Alamo, where they have a home in order to facilitate visiting their daughter and grandchildren. Even with all the technology at his fingertips, Silvestri is still pretty much doing what he did in the “CHiPs” days. “The basic job hasn’t changed,” he says. “I’m still helping the director to realize his vision and tell the story.”
A Wine Is Born
As his surname implies, Silvestri is half Italian. “Growing up in Teaneck, all my relatives lived within walking distance. My grandparents, Joe Silvestri and Eugenia “Jenny” Martinetto had been in the restaurant business,” he says. “Each year, a few train cars full of grapes would arrive from Lodi. My family would get a couple of crates and make wine in the basement. I have fond memories of those times.”
His daughter’s skill at horseback riding led to a new family venture. “Alex was a gifted young equestrian,” her father says. “So we bought some land in Carmel Valley where she could ride and we could escape the fog and get some sun.”
One day the Silvestris were enjoying the view on the property, turned to each other and said, “Hey! Let’s plant some grapes.” The vines for what would become Silvestri wines were planted in 2000, with the first released vintage being that of 2003. All are estate wines, and include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Barbera, Syrah and a blend entitled “Eugenia” (in honor of Alan’s grandmother). Production is under 3,000 cases per year.
“We’re trying to make a good bottle of wine, and wanted to see what that beautiful Carmel Valley dirt could produce,” Silvestri adds.
When one of Silvestri’s sons was two years old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. “It was very traumatic,” Sandra says. “He was flown to Children’s Hospital in LA and nearly died. I got involved with Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), and founded the local chapter in 1996. So far, we’ve raised more than $2 million to aid research into finding a cure for diabetes.”
The Silvestris go against just about every Hollywood stereotype. They’re humble, in tune with their adopted community and passionate about helping others. Glen Ballard spares no words in his admiration of his friend.
“His grace and poise are admirable, the songwriter says. “He’s one of the finest human beings to walk this planet.”