It wasn't the film's story of love and romance that built the huge hit song – it was his own

By Scott Huver
October 21, 2015 04:30 PM
Moviestore/Re/REX Shutterstock

“The Power of Love” became one of Huey Lewis & The News’ biggest hits of the ’80s. But it wasn’t inspired by the time-traveled-addled romance between Marty McFly’s parents or even the bromance between Marty and his pal Doc Brown in Back to the Future.

Rather than draw inspiration from the film’s plotline, Lewis – who co-wrote the song with original bandmates Chris Hayes and Johnny Colla – looked to his personal muses of the moment.

“It was my young family,” he reveals in time for Back to the Future Day Wednesday, which coincides with the release of the trilogy on Blu-ray. “It was 1985, and I was married in ’83 and had two kids, one born in ’84 and one in ’85. And that was what that was about.”

Turning the clock back to 1985, the frontman for the mega-popular ’80s band recalls being called into a meeting with producer Steven Spielberg, director Bob Zemeckis and Zemeckis’ screening partner Bob Gale to talk about their upcoming time-travel comedy, which was early in production.

“Zemeckis said ‘We’ve just written this movie, and the lead character Marty McFly’s favorite band would be Huey Lewis & the News,’ ” Lewis tells PEOPLE. The filmmakers asked him: “How would you like to write a song for the film?”

“And I said “Wow!” Flattered, but I didn’t know how to write for film, necessarily – and furthermore didn’t really fancy writing a song called ‘Back to the Future,’ honestly,” says Lewis, who nearly balked at the offer.

“And he said ‘Oh no, no – call the song whatever you want.’ And I said, ‘Well, great! The next thing we write, I’ll send it down to you.’ And the next thing we wrote was ‘The Power of Love.”

The song appears in the original film in two versions: one performed by Marty (Michael J. Fox) and his band the Pinheads, while the News’ track played as Marty skateboards through Hill Valley’s Town Square.

The tune was an instant smash, rising up the pop charts in the weeks prior to the film’s release, becoming the group’s first number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was eventually nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song, and Christopher Lloyd appeared as Doc Brown in the band’s music video.

Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future

“The song was gonna be a big hit anyway,” notes Lewis, “but the movie propelled it internationally. So for us, we had plenty of hits, more than a few hits in America, but with the film, suddenly it was a big international hit. So we toured Asia and Europe and all that.”

Early on, the filmmakers were so pleased with the results that they asked Lewis if he could pen one more song for the film’s end credits. For the second effort, Lewis decided to try building the song around the movie’s story points.

“Sean Hayes and I put together “Back In Time” – and it turned out that it’s actually quite easy to write for film!” the singer laughs. “In a way, it’s easier, in that you don’t have to invest yourself in it. So that was a lot of fun, actually.”

The musical collaboration also led to a side-gig for Lewis, who was cast in a cameo as one of the high school teachers auditioning Marty’s band – telling him, ironically, that his version of “The Power of Love” is “just too darn loud.”

“I was reluctant at first, not being an actor, obviously,” says Lewis. “But Zemeckis thought it would be a good idea, as long as I didn’t get credited. It was kind of an inside joke kind of thing.”

The singer subsequently scored some high-profile acting gigs, including a role in the Robert Altman-directed “Short Cuts,” a leading role opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Duets, and most recently a multi-episode stint on the sitcom Hot In Cleveland.

“I’m in show business: I’ll do anything for attention or money – usually in that order,” he laughs. “I like it as long as I don’t have to do it for a living. As a lark, it’s really, really fun.”

At age 65, Lewis says he doesn’t exactly miss the heady atmosphere of his ’80s-era heights of fame. “I remember it wasn’t a lot of fun to be in malls. It wasn’t a lot of fun to be in McDonald’s. Just walking around town was a bit of a job for me. I actually prefer my new profile, to be honest with you, because it was a little too much for me. I don’t care about being famous so much.”

But making music remains the priority: Despite a few lineup shifts, Huey Lewis & The News is in its 37th year of touring, performing around 70 concerts in 2015 .

“Playing live is what we’ve always done,” says Lewis. “It’s what we’re best at. It’s what we love to do – and by the way, we’re still improving. So that’s what we are: We’re an audio act. Yeah, we make videos and yeah, we make records, but what we really do is play live.”

And the singer says that, after a long recording hiatus, the band may have a few new hits ahead. “We’ve written five new songs, which is wildly prolific for us,” he chuckles. “You know, it gets harder to write. That really becomes the hard problem, because you’ve told your best stories, maybe. But as a songwriter and as a singer, you need a new story every once in a while, and you can’t force this stuff. And suddenly, we had some ideas and we got five new things, three or four of which I’m very, very proud of.”

Proud enough for Lewis to prompt fans to envision a future beyond 2015: “Tell everybody to feel free to imagine themselves owning a brand new CD next year!”