It’s November 1955, and a gymnasium full of hopelessly square students gleefully jitterbug their way through the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Then a mysterious new student named Marty McFly takes the stage, cherry red Gibson in hand. “This is an oldie,” he says before quickly correcting himself. “Well, it’s an oldie where I come from.” With that, he leads the band into a furious version of “Johnny B. Goode.” To call it a cover isn’t quite accurate — the track wouldn’t be written for another few years. The crowd doesn’t know what hit ‘em; heads begin to bob, feet begin to move, waists begin to sway. One observer is so enthralled that he immediately dials up his cousin, Chuck Berry, and informs him that the “new sound” he’s looking for has arrived. Thanks to the magic of time travel, McFly has introduced rock & roll to the kids at Hill Valley High School.
The scene, culturally problematic in retrospect, is a highlight of Back to the Future, the July 1985 blockbuster staring Family Ties heartthrob Michael J. Fox as the DeLorean-driving McFly, on a time travel mission to set up his then-teenage parents while fending off his mother’s advances. (Eww.) Despite Fox’s convincing performance, he’s actually miming the guitar work of Tim May and lip-syncing singer Mark Campbell’s vocals. Remarkably, writer/director Robert Zemeckis nearly cut the iconic sequence, fearing that it brought the story to a standstill. Thankfully, test audiences reacted better than McFly’s crowd, who look aghast as he begins tearing off some wild anachronistic Van Halen licks and kicking over his amp like Pete Townshend. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he memorably tells the confused audience. “But your kids are gonna love it.”
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Who cares that, in reality, artists like Ike Turner and Billy Haley had already made tentative forays into the rock realm in 1955? Even Chuck Berry had released pioneering singles like “Maybellene” earlier that summer. As a movie moment, it manages to be both goofy and badass — not to mention unforgettable. Though it’s unclear what Berry himself thought of the scene, it’s worth noting that for his 60th birthday concert in 1986, his backing band was dressed exactly like McFly’s group, the Starlighters.
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