"Mister Sandman" Sequence

"Let's take a look back at the year 1928. A year when you might have seen Al Capone dancing the Charleston on top of a flagpole."
Kent Brockman, The Simpsons

A scene in a period film or TV show that hits the viewer with as many period signifiers as possible. The scene exists to quickly establish the "feel" of the time period and will almost always feature a period song (typically one that is still popular in the present) playing on the film's soundtrack. More-or-less it's Popular History condensed into a sequence usually less than two minutes long.

A typical example appears in the second episode of Journeyman, where the lead character finds himself on an airplane in The Seventies. He sees, in the span of about thirty seconds, flirtatious stewardesses in orange uniforms, people smoking, a kid playing with a toy gun, the film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes being screened, and a newspaper that mentions the Ford administration, all while K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight" plays in the background.

The trope-namer is Back to the Future.

These are most commonly and generally best utilized by films and TV shows about Time Travel, especially when the characters frequently travel between different eras making quickly establishing the time period a necessity.

Compare Spinning Newspaper, Eiffel Tower Effect. When a scene in a work set in the present day becomes this in hindsight, then you've got an Unintentional Period Piece. See also Progressive Era Montage.


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  • In late 2008, Pepsi ran this ad set to The Who's "My Generation" and depicting young folks consuming their product through the decades, from the turn of the century to the present. Each decade is shown as you'd expect: flappers in the '20s, hippies in the '60s, and so on.
  • A 2008 Hovis bread advert does this, involving a kid running through recent British history with a loaf of bread. As above, each decade is represented by something iconic; suffragettes, both wars, the Coronation, the 66 World Cup squad, immigration, the miners' strike and the millennium celebrations. The kid's outfit also changes, at first subtly, with the cut of his jacket changing from Victorian to Edwardian, and then more obviously, such as the vividly striped jumper and wide collar he's sporting in the Seventies.
  • There was a Chevy Volt ad that did the same thing, but focusing on one plot of land.
  • Also a Mercedes-Benz commercial called "Timeless." Various model Benzes drive through the '50's, '60's, '70's, '80's and '90's to a version of "Unchained Melody" which seamlessly changes musical style for each decade.
  • Langham Hotel's 2007 commercial does a backward variation where a butler retrogrades through time from the present day up to the hotel's founding. There, the butler does most of the services to prominent guests such as Winston Churchill, King Edward VIII (then Prince of Wales in the 1920s), Oscar Wilde and Emperor Napoleon III of France. And then cue a slight awkward reaction from the butler and the guests while a contemporary phone he kept is ringing on the grand opening in 1865.

    Anime and Manga 
  • Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life does several of these sequences to illustrate Japan's recovery from World War II.
  • The very first sequence in Taishou Yakyuu Musume establishes the atmosphere of 1920s Japan. It's all in Koume's head, though.

    Comic Books 
  • Archie Comics did a few stories extolling the virtues of The Gay Nineties that where essentially this trope on the comics page (so no soundtrack).
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was positively littered with visual references to the time periods in which its various arcs were set, especially during Century.
  • During their first few minutes in New York circa 1907, the Runaways read a newspaper about Typhoid Mary, walk past an Emma Goldman expy, and intervene in a fire in a factory staffed by child labor.
  • In Alison Bechdel's collection of Dykes To Watch Out For comics, the introduction where she explains herself and the comic contains flashbacks with a box that name-drops a song for each decade: "that disco mix of the Star Wars theme" for 1977, "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John for 1981, and "She's All I Ever Had" by Ricky Martin for 1999.

  • Named for the scene in Back to the Future when Marty McFly enters Hill Valley in 1955 to find that the town square is completely decked out to reflect The Fifties. The song "Mr. Sandman," as performed by the Four Aces, plays over this scene.
    • Similar sequences appear for 2015 Hill Valley, alternate 1985 Hill Valley and 1885 Hill Valley, in movies two, two, and three respectively. Alternate 1985 is set to "I Can't Drive 55" by Sammy Hagar, but the other two don't get songs. The 1885 sequence includes a small harmonica bit of the BTTF theme tune, when Marty is looking at the courthouse in construction.
    • The "Power of Love" scene in Part I also counts, although it doesn't use the same visual cues as the later examples.
    • "Mr Sandman" is played once again in BTTF Part II, when Marty tails young Biff to retrieve the Gray's Sports Almanac, though it's shorter than Marty's first walk into 1955 Hill Valley.
    • Used in Episode 1 and Episode 3 of the Telltale Games adaptation, for 1931 and alternate 1986 respectively. Both recreate the moment where Marty almost gets hit by a car while crossing the street to the town square.
    • In the DVD commentary for Part II, it's noted that they'd considered using "Papa Loves Mambo" by Perry Como before deciding on "Mister Sandman". "Papa Loves Mambo" does still appear playing on the cafe's jukebox later in the film, though.
  • Older than Television: Mae West's 1933 film She Done Him Wrong opens with one of these.
  • The Departed has a strange use of one of these: In the opening scene, the Rolling Stones are on the soundtrack, all the cars look ancient, and Nicholson is doing a voice-over about Kennedy... for a scene that apparently takes place in 1989. You'd think that if they really wanted music to set the scene, they could've had Marky Mark call in a connection there.
  • Every scene in The Wedding Singer has enough '80s signifiers to be one of these, but only the opening scene fulfills the purpose of the trope.
  • The scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in which the Enterprise crew crosses a street in 1986 San Francisco and Kirk is called a "dumbass" by an angry taxi driver. The background music seems to be a standard '80s rock tune. It was a jazz/fusion tune that was created for the movie by the group Yellowjackets which was accurate of music adults listened to in the '80's. Also, an unlucky hoodlum is shown jamming on a boombox with music that fit the style of 80's era punk. The song was written specifically for that scene, and performed by the actor that played the punk.
  • Peter Jackson's 2005 version of King Kong opens with one of these.
  • Watchmen starts with a montage of superhero history, to the sound of "The Times They Are a-Changin'" by Bob Dylan.
  • A few of these can be found in the Austin Powers movies. Very much in the Affectionate Parody vein.
  • Inverted in The Brady Bunch Movie: the film opens with a series of snapshots of mid-'90s L.A. (grunge music, cell phones, burnt-out panhandlers, etc.), the better to establish how out of place the stuck-in-the-'70s Brady clan is. As the years pass, this montage is becoming more and more of a straight example.
  • In Field of Dreams, Ray is briefly transported back to 1972 so he can talk with Moonlight Graham. The first things he sees are a theater marquee for The Godfather and a Nixon re-election poster.
  • The entire movie Forrest Gump is (and aims to be) one big Mister Sandman Sequence, with the title character blundering his way into nearly every major event and prominent fad of the late 20th century.
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is set in 1957. To firmly establish it, the opening scene is set to Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog." In addition, there are teenagers, both a Sweater Girl, and a guy in letter jackets with a buzzcut, racing in a hot rod. All possibly in Homage to American Graffiti.
  • The mall montage in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, set to "We Got The Beat" by The Go-Gos are another presumably unintentional, then-present-day example.
  • The Animated Credits Opening to Grease includes flashes of numerous iconic '50s pop-culture images.
  • The film version of Same Time, Next Year accompanies each scene transition with a montage of black-and-white still photos of famous people and events from each decade, to depict the passage of time and subsequent changes in the characters' lives and in the postwar society they inhabit.
  • Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) features the camera lingering on a newspaper with a period-distinguishing headline, before panning out at the beginning of a scene. They do this not once but twice, although it's probably less to establish the period itself and more to show how much time James Cagney's character spends in prison.
  • An odd example comes in the Hammer Horror film Dracula A.D. 1972. The film opens with a prologue set in 1872 and then jumps into an opening title montage of scenery from 1972 London to demonstrate that this is indeed 1972 now. What's weird about it is that the movie was released in 1972, the audience should really know what it looks like. The probably explanation is that Hammer really wanted to hammer (sorry) it home hard that this Dracula movie was not a Period Piece.
    • Arguably counts, though in this case the point is not "hey, remember those wacky days of 1972?" but "look, here's a bunch of stuff you probably passed on the way to the theatre (assuming you're in London) to show you this is set in the present day."
  • Hot Tub Time Machine has one of these when the four protagonists reach the ski lodge and realize that it's The Eighties.
    Nick: What color is Michael Jackson?
    Girl: Black?
    Nick: <runs screaming>
  • The Time Machine (2002) had a scene playing with this motif as a kind of Time-Compression Montage to show how time passes outside the titular machine, in which dresses on a shop's exhibition get shorter and shorter.
    • This is copied from the 1960 version. (It wasn't in the novel, since H. G. Wells obviously didn't know how the world would change after his time.)
      • The story does talk about things around him changing suddenly, though the narrator is vague on the details and mainly talks about buildings appearing and disappearing suddenly, and the landscape visibly changing.
  • Mr. Holland's Opus follows the eponymous music teacher's life through three decades. After each time skip, a montage and song play out to characterize the cultural climate of the time.
  • The trailer for The Artist (2011) establishes the period with a peppy dance number.
  • The `60s flashback in Recess: School's Out.
  • Occurs in Peggy Sue Got Married, shortly after Peggy Sue wakes up as her teenaged self in 1960. As her friends drive her home, she's treated to shots of her hometown as it used to be, with vintage clothing and cars everywhere, and "Tequila" by the Champs on the radio.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Used too many times to list in Doctor Who — often with the added twist that the Doctor and his companion have judged the time period of his destination incorrectly, and disembark the TARDIS dressed inappropriately (disco attire in 1870s Scotland, or leather jackets and jeans at QEII's coronation.)
    • On the other hand, such a long runner has artifacts of its various production time periods that sometimes seem to have walked straight out of this trope. Watch the 6th and 7th Doctor episodes, cringe at the overabuse of '80s Hair and dreadful paleosynth music. Part of it can be blamed on a Totally Radical attempt to make the show "hip" and appeal to the youth of various periods.
  • The entire hook of Cold Case, combined with the Lyrical Dissonance musical outros.
  • Journeyman seemed to have been especially fond of these.
  • Naturally, the pilot episodes of Life On Mars and Ashes to Ashes both featured these, although the music in both cases was organic to the scene (from Sam's car's 8-track player and the sound system at Alex's boat party, respectively). Even the titles are in on it.
  • Both played straight and subverted by LOST:
    • Played straight: The beginning of "Cabin Fever" contains a number of signifiers that the flashback is to the 1950s. "Every Day" by Buddy Holly plays as a girl in a classic 50s outfit dances and applies bright-red lipstick.
    • Subverted: "Man of Science, Man of Faith" begins with a man with long hair playing Mama Cass music on a vinyl record and using an old monochrome computer. The audience tries to figure out which character is flashing back to the 1970s, only to find out it is happening in the present.
  • Used frequently in Quantum Leap.
  • Seen in Charmed when the sisters travel through time (although it's arguably justified that they should end up around a bunch of hippies when going back to the 1960s, the setting being San Francisco) and when, in another episode, flashbacks display scenes from The Roaring Twenties.
  • New Girl features this trope whenever there's a "Fat Schmidt" flashback to their late 90's/early 2000's college years. A bulbous iMac monitor and a Napster poster are in nearly every shot. (Do you remember any Napster posters?)
  • Way overdone on Malcolm in the Middle: a flashback to the 1980's shows the parents decked out in big hair and bright clothes in a room covered in checkerboard patterns while Tears for Fears plays in the background and Hal mentions "the Us Festival."
  • Parodied in the Stella short "Birthday," when Michael and David flash back to when they met Michael Showalter in the 80s; the first shot is of a calendar that says "FINAL EXAMS," "SYNTHPOP," and "RONALD REAGAN."
  • In Breaking Bad, a flashback to the Cousins' childhood features an early closeup of an '80s "brick" portable phone.
  • Parodied on Get a Life in an episode where Chris time-travels to the 1970s to right some wrong - you can tell it's the '70s because his old dad and all his codger friends are boogieing down to disco music.
  • Subverted by Better Off Ted. Phil and Lem reminisce about Phil's first day on the job, and a flashback shows Phil wearing tie-dye and Lem with an afro. Then Lem says, "It's a shame your first day had to be during Sixties Week."
  • When Conan O'Brien hosted Late Night Brian Stack had a recurring character who was a traveling salesman straight out of The Fifties. He'd usually make some sort of period reference soon after he arrived.

  • Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" is a Laundry List of late-20th-century cultural markers rattled off one after the other. He stays in chronological order (at least approximately) until he reaches 1963, after which he starts throwing them out more or less at random... 80s, 60s, 80s again...
  • American Pie.
  • Evelyn Evelyn: "The Tragic Events of September."


    Video Games 
  • The opening loading screen and title sequence in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City helps establish that it's The Eighties. The loading screen simulates a Commodore 64 loading screen, then the title sequence plays a Suspiciously Similar Song of the Miami Vice theme while showing scenes of life in 1980s Miami—big hair, boxy cars, etc.
    • Also, the first time you enter a vehicle, its in-game radio is always scripted to be on, and playing Billy Jean. Every time.
  • Subverted in the Fallout games. The games always start with music and imagery of 1950's Americana, before panning out to show that the games actually occur in a post-apocalyptic future.
  • In Mafia II, when the protagonist Vito is getting out of a 6 years term in jail, we are treated to sequence full of fifties imagery and music, to signify how the time has passed since the last time he saw the outside world, during the final year of the World War II.

  • Casey and Andy: When Jenn accidentally ends up in The Eighties, stores and signs show off various fads and icons of the decade, such as Betamax players and thin ties.

    Web Original 
  • The Nostalgia Chick's Anastasia review notes the unrealistic number of "1920s Paris" things and people shown, as well as the fact that Sigmund Freud shouldn't be there. (Then again, neither should the Dowager Emperess.)
  • Vanity Fair Magazine's centennial anniversary in 2013 made 10 videos highlighting each decade by it's significance, such as
    • Suffragettes in the 1910s,
    • Pole sitting in the 1920s,
    • The 1939 New York World's fair,
    • J. D. Salinger's literary works in the form of WWII tattoos,
    • A catchy List Song of 1950s innovations and pop culture,
    • An interview of notable 1960s personalities,
    • An "inside look" on the day and the life of Studio 54,
    • A heap of old issues about Reagan and AIDS discovered by two girls,
    • A humorous talk show about the 1990s, and
    • Anti-terrorism issues during the Bush Era.

    Western Animation 
  • The Classic Disney Short The Nifty Nineties (set in The Gay Nineties, so no "Smells Like Teen Spirit") is a protracted Mister Sandman Sequence.
  • Parodied in Clerks: The Animated Series. When Randall has a flashback back to when they met in the eighties, not only is everyone in the store they work at (except, notably, Randall and Dante themselves) decked out in eighties fashions, but almost everyone is a notable person from that decade — including Ronald Reagan. Then, when Dante remembers that they actually met in the seventies, the flashback includes a whole load of seventies icons, including Jimmy Carter and John Travolta a la Saturday Night Fever.
  • The Simpsons:
    • The Kent Brockman quote at the top of the page is from "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie."
    • The show's flashback episodes tend to employ these. In "Lisa's First Word," for instance, the flashback to 1983 begins with Marge and a neighbor woman discussing the last episode of M*A*S*H, followed immediately by Homer walking down the street singing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", then subverted when the scene is set with "a young Joe Piscopo was teaching us how to laugh."
    • "That 90's Show" contains references to Grunge rock, Sonic the Hedgehog, Beanie Babies, and a scene where Comic Book Guy finishes explaining why The Lord of the Rings can never be made into a movie (which was a REAL discussion at the time.)
    • Lampshaded in "My Mother the Carjacker." Channel 6 news anchor Kent Brockman shows a montage specifically to show viewers what the 60's were like, set to "All Along the Watchtower." Brockman then calls it a "shrill, pointless decade." Although that was partly his own fault, since his montage included such ludicrous images as Batman dancing the Batusi and John Wayne saying "You bet your sweet bippy."
    • Dr. Hibbert's hairstyle is constantly reflecting the fashion of the time.
  • Frequently seen in Gravity Falls:
    • Although not a time-travel example, the first few moments of the episode "Irrational Treasure," the Pines family is bombarded with covered wagons, butter churns, livestock, old-timey speech mannerisms, and banjo music, because it's Pioneer Day (to Stan's horror). There is also an excessive number of woodpeckers, but that's a historical marker unique to Gravity Falls.
    • When Dipper and Mabel flash through various eras in "The Time Traveler's Pig," one such escapade includes heading to "Ye Old Oregon Trail," as announced by the driver of a covered wagon over a treacherous cavern's edge; he also mentions to his wife "Fertilia" that she must have produced two children when he wasn't looking.
    • Played with in "Boyz Crazy," when Grunkle Stan reminisces about his youth — cut to "The Juke Joint," complete with neon lighting, jukeboxes, corny signs, and cherry-on-top milkshakes, plus a bad boy young Stan dressed to resemble James Dean. But it turns out this is not a 1950's diner (Stan isn't old enough for that), but a 1970's diner themed to resemble the 1950's. And Stan dances with his girlfriend, who wears 1970's-style hot pants.

    Real Life 

Alternative Title(s):

Era Establishing Scene