How Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" Helped Define 'Back to the Future'

Courtesy Everett Collection
'Back to the Future'

Marty McFly jams to the hit at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea dance in the climax of Robert Zemeckis' classic film.

"This is an oldie, but uh … well, it's an oldie where I come from."

That's Marty McFly, one of the most beloved characters in film history, referring to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" before bringing down the house with it at his parents' high school prom. Where Marty comes from, of course, is the future, and in that scene from Back to the Future, "Johnny B. Goode" is still three years away from being released.

Yet for the crowd of students at the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea dance in the climax of the movie, "Johnny B. Goode" IS the future — it's the "new sound" that is going to take over America, bring the Beatles and Stones across the pond, define decades of popular culture and go mainstream before anyone expects it to. No wonder Chuck Berry's fictional cousin Marvin holds up the phone for his musical relative (who, at that point in his history, was first cracking the charts with "Maybellene") to hear.

It wasn't a coincidence that, out of all of the songs director Robert Zemeckis had to choose from for his extended 1950s-kids-get-a-preview-of-rock-'n'-roll scene, "Johnny B. Goode" was the clear and enduring choice. Although Berry's 1958 single only hit No. 8 on the Hot 100 chart, "Goode" perfectly represented the disruptive nature of Berry's blues-influenced music, the first rock-star origin story defined by a swagger and showmanship that had not yet invaded radio.

Look no further than that opening riff, which shook America awake — if 1950s popular music needed a kick in the pants (and in Back to the Future, those stuffy students certainly did), then that scorching electric credo was the boot that set the tempo for decades of brilliance (and, in Marty McFly's case, an Eddie Van Halen-inspired metal outro that's too wild for even his young parents — "But your kids are gonna love it," he memorably prophesizes).

But really, the sly genius of using "Johnny B. Goode" as the token from the future that Marty bestows to the past is that the song encapsulates Back to the Future's main character to a T. As Michael J. Fox plays him, Marty is a freight train, barging into high school gymnasiums and shoot-outs with terrorists and different dimensions with a hangdog charm and ease of knowing that he can skateboard past his problems.

Marty goes, goes, goes; he "never ever learned to read or write so well," as Berry sings on the track, but he's going to win your heart. McFly performs "Johnny B. Goode" at his most relaxed moment in Back to the Future — he's defeated Biff, his parents have kissed, his hand is no longer becoming invisible (and if none of that makes sense to you, just see the movie already) — and with most of the conflict settled, he can let loose with one of the most euphoric musical moments ever recorded.

Having a white character go back in time and be the "real" creator of one of the most famous black rock 'n' roll songs in history? A little problematic in hindsight, to say the least. But the power of "Johnny B. Goode" in the film remains: Along with "Don't You (Forget About Me)" in The Breakfast Club and "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" in Dirty Dancing, it ranks as one of the most iconic uses of music in any '80s film — even outstripping Huey Lewis and the News' own contemporary Hot 100 No. 1 from Back to the Future, a classic in its own right.

It helps the song's legacy that Back to the Future was one of the biggest film hits of the decade, but commercial success aside, the film's third act would drastically change without a moment as purely pleasurable as Marty McFly finally rocking out in front of the student body. Make no mistake: Back to the Future needed "Johnny B. Goode," not the other way around.

With Berry's passing, countless younger fans will no doubt think of the song blasting from McFly's red Gibson as the rest of the band tries to keep up. Decades later, it's still hard to keep up with the oldie where McFly comes from.

This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.

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