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“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.
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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