How ‘Back to the Future’ Brought Chuck Berry to a New Generation
A younger audience got some sense of Chuck Berry's generation-awing, genre-shaping importance when Marty McFly covered "Johnny B. Goode" in Back to the Future.
Before performing it at a mid-'50s prom during the time-traveling film's climax, Michael J. Fox's character reaches back for "an oldie. Well, it's an oldie where I come from." See, Berry's classic hadn't yet helped create the genre known as rock 'n' roll. His new sound hadn't shaped the next generation of British youngsters either. He hadn't mounted the unlikeliest of comebacks with a goofy novelty single.
Everyone at that prom was moved to stunned silence, just as you imagine the actual kids of that era were. Berry's fictional cousin Marvin promptly calls Chuck in director Robert Zemeckis' script. "You know that new sound you've been looking for?" he says, holding up the phone while Fox imitates Berry's famous duck walk. "Listen to this."
All of this takes place, of course, before McFly adds a touch of only-in-the-'80s Eddie Van Halen-esque soloing. "Your kids," Fox's character says in a prescient aside, "are gonna love it."
Marty and the Starlighters were credited with performing “Johnny B. Goode,” both in the film and soundtrack. But Fox actually lip-synced to a vocal by New Orleans-born Mark Campbell at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Tim May, a Nashville-based sessions ace, performed a solo for the actor to mime along with on that cherry red Gibson ES-345.
Fox worked on nights and weekends perfecting things with Paul Hanson, an instructor at the Musician's Institute in Hollywood. He spent his days working on the hit NBC sitcom Family Ties. "He was really nervous about it," co-star Lea Thompson told HitFix. "He worked really hard at it."
Van Halen later revealed that he made a cameo elsewhere in the film: That's him on the cassette player in the hilarious "Silence Earthling" sequence. At the time, Campbell's participation was also a well-guarded secret.
"They want to keep the mystique that it’s Michael singing and I was all good with that," he told Nerd Report. "I did get a special thanks credit at the end – Mark Campbell, my name’s right there."
A sign of how important "Johnny B. Goode" was to Back to the Future: The song appeared in every version of the original script, going back to the earliest draft. "We didn't have an alternative," co-writer-producer Bob Gale once said. They paid between $50,000 and $75,000 for the rights, he added. “However much it was, it was very expensive in 1985 to pay that much for a song,” he said.
Berry would have just released his first single, "Maybellene," a few months before the Back to the Future dance took place. "Johnny B. Goode" didn't arrive until 1958, reaching No. 8 on the Billboard pop chart. That song – even just the opening riff – changed everything. It does for McFly, too.
He's finally gotten his parents together, solving a principal plot point, and now he's ready to cut loose a little. The moment is as much one of release for the up-tight high schoolers in the crowd as it is for the main character in Back to the Future.
Along the way, the film gained an iconic rock 'n' roll element, even as Chuck Berry found new relevance for kids born 20 years after his initial reign. "Johnny B. Goode" is now inextricably linked to the movie, and to everyone associated with it.
Fox later would take the stage to play his own version of the song, perhaps most memorably with Coldplay. Campbell, who fronts a band called Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, still does "Johnny B. Goode" by request – including once with a 62-piece orchestra at a private party hosted by Seth MacFarlane.
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