July 31, 2021

Come Chuck Berry: The Night Marty McFly Invented Rock & Roll

A little over two minutes lasts one of the most famous moments of Back to the Future. One that passed into the pop culture memorabilia zone. It occurs in scene 138 of the script, almost exactly at the climax of the film, when Marty McFly finally watches the youthful version of his parents kiss for the first time, during the lively Hill Valley high school dance on Saturday night, April 12. November 1955.

But it was not only the knot of the story that had to be resolved. Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, was on the scene for an emergency. He took the stage with a Gibson ES 345 guitar to reinforce the band that was animating the dance, Marvin Berry & The Starlighters. Its leader and guitarist injured his left hand when rescuing him from the luggage rack in which the friends of Biff Tannen, the villain on duty, had locked him up.

After performing the romantic “Earth Angel,” a doo wop-style ballad popularized in reality by The Crew-Cuts, Marty puts down his guitar and wants to get off the stage. But Marvin stops him with an invitation. “Come on, let’s do a good one.” Marty hesitates, but the applause from the decked out youths makes him reconsider. Something inside her moves. The frustrated audition with his band the Pinheads goes through his mind, in which they were rejected for playing “too loud” -almost at the beginning of the film- and those afternoons of adolescence trying to imitate their guitar heroes. And there, lost thirty years in a time that is not his, life winks at his music-loving side. With a mischievous smile on the side, he accepts.

He approaches the microphone and presents a song “old, but beautiful.” After giving instructions to the musicians, Marty takes the guitar and lashes out with the riff of “Johnny B. Goode.” A composition that nobody knows because it has not yet been written. Slicked boys and girls in flared skirts are shocked. Little by little they start to keep up with their feet. Some do pirouettes. Others dance as if possessed by the rhythm. In a wink that the script allows, Marvin, maddened, calls his cousin Chuck. “Do you remember the new sound you were looking for?”

But in 1955 the real Chuck Berry already had the sound. It came out of his huge hands every time he hit the strings of his Gibson. In July of that year he released his first single. “Maybelline,” a bouncy-rhythm song that reached # 1 on the R&B charts and # 5 on the Billboard charts. He was, in fact, the first African American to do so.

Chuck Berry

From there would come a succession of singles that would be the creative spring for a generation of boys willing to leave behind the days of postwar hardships and the nuclear threat that loomed over the world. With his simple and straightforward stories about robberies, girls, and escaping from school, Berry rose up as an idol. “Johnny B. Goode”, a song from 1958, tells the story of a marginal boy; He does not know how to read or write well, but he plays the guitar “like a bell rings.” He would have been inspired by his own life, although yes, he could read.

That night at the high school dance (appropriately called The Charm Under the Sea), the magic of movies allowed Marty to fulfill his fantasy of being a rockstar. It took Michael J. Fox four tough weeks of preparation in which he played guitar for hours and practiced a choreography for as many hours. Because deep down, he knew that if he was going to play a boy aspiring to star, he had to really look like it. Nothing by halves.

“I told the [director] Bob [Zemeckis]: ‘When I do this scene I’ll be playing guitar, so you can finger sync me. Feel free to cut off my hands whenever you want, ”the actor recalled in an interview with Empire magazine. Having said that, he pressured me to get it right. So I had a guy named Paul Hanson, who was my guitar teacher. “

But it didn’t stop there. It was fiction, so you had to exaggerate. In his performance, Marty throws himself spectacularly to the ground, performs frenzied Van Halen-style tappings, and even kicks the amp. A scene more typical of a 1985 bar than an elegant 1955 high school dance. Young people stare at him in amazement as the shriek of the guitar slowly dies away like a blast. “You may not be ready yet, but your kids will love it,” McFly apologizes.

Everything was prepared in detail. “For about four weeks we worked on this piece and at the same time I was working with this Madonna choreographer,” recalls Michael J. Fox. When he began the preparation, the actor was clear that his was to fulfill a teenage fantasy. Therefore, he was very clear about what he demanded of his coach. “Incorporate all the characteristics and quirks of my favorite guitarists; so I do Pete Townshend’s windmill, Jimi Hendrix’s behind-the-back trick, and Chuck Berry’s duck step. “

For Michael J. Fox, the scene became a landmark in his life. As if it were a ritual for lovers of pop culture, he has recreated it on several occasions and has even gotten up to play “Johnny B. Goode” with bands like Coldplay. Something like recapturing live that youthful charm that he achieved at a time when he was simulating, precisely, a live performance. It is part of the massive character of cinema. A sample of its technical reproducibility, sustained in the production technique, as proposed by Walter Benjamin.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886092an)

Fox playing the solo on “Johnny B. Goode” is well worth calling a feat. However, strictly speaking, what sounds in the film is a dubbing recorded by guitarist Tim May. The voice was also recorded by another; singer Mark Campbell.

It is not for less. “It’s a difficult solo,” says musician and guitar teacher Cristián Verdugo. “If someone wanted to learn it, it would have to be with someone who knows it very well, study it for hours and give it a long, long time.”

Verdugo, guitarist for the bands Madvanna, Triciclo Parlante and Kudai, confirms that what Fox did was more of a dubbing. “In the scene it seems that he played it more or less well, but in truth they are only cameos as if he was playing the correct notes, but he is not even close.”

Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future

Mastering the Chuck Berry style is not easy. In the documentary Under the Influence (available on Netflix), Keith Richards, one of the musician’s most recognized fans, admits it. “Not many want to play like Chuck because it’s not easy at all.” His hard stacattos on the guitar’s high tessitura and his two-tone phrasing are a trademark that can be a challenge for any aspiring guitarist.

“His solos are difficult, there are some very big heads,” Verdugo complements. They are very theoretical, with a lot of harmony applied to the chords. It is not as improvised as it sounds. He created the solos from certain harmonies and that requires a while to sit down with a pencil and paper to create the melodies ”.

John Lennon once proposed the name Chuck Berry to rename rock and roll if necessary. A statement that came from his deep admiration for the musician. That adolescent spirit is what McFly displayed during that fictional night.