The Secrets and the Untold Stories of the iconic ‘Johnny B. Goode’ scene in ‘Back to the Future’
The gym of the Hollywood United Methodist Church is dressed to the nines. Paper and foam fish hang from the ceiling. Blue and silver streamer curtains line the walls. A statue of Poseidon towers over tables strewn with punch bowls. About 100 people add a rainbow’s array of color to the gym with 1950s-era dresses and suits. But they’re not doing the hand jive or the bop – they’re busting out their ’80s moves as the band plays Whodini’s 1984 funk-rap song “Freaks Come Out At Night.”
The scene is a nighttime shoot in mid-March 1985 on the set of “Back to the Future.” Harry Waters Jr., who played Marvin Berry, the leader of the band at the dance, recalled the surreal experience of jamming with contemporary songs in between takes for a gym full of extras in 30 years out-of-date clothes.
“It was a party! It was entirely too much fun,” Waters told HitFix in a phone conversation.
Party though it may have felt, tensions were rising on what had become an unusually lengthy production schedule. With the July 3 release date fast approaching, the cast and crew were too busy racing to wrap the film to give much thought to what this quirky little time travel adventure would become. No one predicted that “Back to the Future” would top the U.S. box office for 11 weeks, would go on to make more money than any other film in 1985, and would 30 years later be a major pop culture touchstone beloved by generations.
And Marty’s rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance was perhaps the critical moment that cemented the movie’s place in film history.
The 17-year-old hero, by this point, has won over the audience by being both totally cool and adorably dorky — and both sides of him are on display as he gets carried away playing the Chuck Berry’s rock and roll hit. It’s a scene packed with 1950s nostalgia, wink wink jokes, memorable one-liners, and a crowd-pleasing musical performance, and it supplied the feel good moment that solidified the film’s emotional hold over its audience, transcending it from mere time travel genre adventure to a beloved instant classic.
Rehearse like a rock star
Michael J. Fox’s schedule was grueling in the first three months of 1985. He spent his daytime hours working on NBC sitcom “Family Ties” and his nights and weekends filming “Back to the Future,” with time for about four hours of sleep every day. And somehow he had to find time to learn the guitar part for “Johnny B. Goode,” along with his anachronistic guitar tricks and dance moves that took viewers on a little journey through rock ’n’ roll history.
Fox’s guitar coach for the production was Paul Hanson, an instructor at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood who grew up playing guitar starting at age 8 in a suburb of Seattle. One day in late 1984, the 27-year-old showed the receptionist at the Musician’s Institute how he could play the guitar with his teeth. It turned out to be destiny that Hanson would show off his guitar skills to that girl on that very day. Later that afternoon, “Back to the Future” music supervisor Bones Howe called the Institute asking for a teacher who could do tricks like playing guitar behind his head. “Oh, you’ve got to get Paul Hanson,” the receptionist said.
Hanson began working with the young star of “Back to the Future” – not Fox, though. Actor Eric Stoltz was cast in lead role at the time.
“I really got along with Eric ’cause we’re both Trekkies,” Hanson recalls.
But Stoltz wasn’t a guitar player, so Hanson was basically helping the actor “put his hands in the right position,” well enough that audiences would believe he’s playing the song, Hanson said.
After director Robert Zemeckis and co. realized Stoltz wasn’t bringing the comedy they were looking for in their lead, Fox came aboard as Marty in January 1985. Hanson admits he was eager to work with someone who had some guitar experience – the young actor had played the instrument a bit while growing up in Edmonton, Canada.
“Michael was a complete 180 to Eric,” said Brad Jeffries, the film’s choreographer, who also worked with both actors. “He was much more lighthearted and just had an easier approach on the role and realized it wasn’t Shakespeare…. Michael came in with such an enthusiasm. The character you saw in Marty – that was Michael. Young, enthusiastic with a little bit of an edge, doesn't take himself too seriously but was just right there 100 percent.”
The choreographer and guitar instructor both recall Fox, who was 23 at the time, approaching the role with an eagerness to get the “Johnny B. Goode” performance right – even though audiences wouldn’t hear Fox sing or play a single note of the guitar. In the movie’s credits and on the soundtrack, Marty and the Starlighters are credited with performing “Johnny B. Goode,” but the real singer behind the memorable track is an artist named Mark Campbell. When Howe put out the word that he was looking for someone who “sounded like Michael J. Fox if he sang,” Campbell auditioned and got the job. On the recording, a musician named Tim May plays the guitar part.
Fox honed his guitar skills in several practice sessions at Hanson’s house in North Hollywood and on set. (And Amblin Entertainment’s offices on the Universal lot turned out to be where Hanson taught Fox to play “Earth Angel.”)
On set, Hanson always had “an old suitcase with an amp – one of those amps that are the size of a shoebox and they ran on batteries,” the guitar instructor said. “I brought a boom box that fit in the suitcase also. I’d carry that to set, and Michael could plug into the pignose amp, and I’d start the tape with the backing tracks that we got from Bones.”
Hanson (who worked with Fox again on “Light of Day”) also gave the actor a recording of himself playing the guitar part of “Johnny B. Goode” at half speed that Fox would listen to in the car.
Fox “might be the most quick, witty guy that I know,” Hanson said. “He just comes out with stuff spontaneously.”
It was Fox who suggested which rock artists to emulate when Marty busts out the anachronistic guitar tricks that shock the teenagers of the 1950s. The script called for Marty to imitate Little Richard, Elvis, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson. Writer-producer Bob Gale notes today that those musicians were referenced only as a guide. Fox chose to emulate his own guitar heroes – Eddie Van Halen, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix and Angus Young – and Jeffries helped him get the moves right for each one.
At their first practice at Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in North Hollywood, Jeffries “put on some music, and we just sort of air guitar-ed around and started dancing, and I could see that we were both young and exuberant guys who like music, so he was comfortable with the music and really good to work with from the start,” the choreographer said.
Lea Thompson recalled the long hours her co-star put into preparing for his rock star moment. “He was really nervous about it. He worked really hard at it,” she told HitFix in a phone conversation.
After about three or four rehearsals with Jeffries, Fox had those rock star moves down (including Berry’s famed duckwalk, which Jeffries noted “is not easy”), and it was time to do the scene for the cameras at the church in Hollywood. One problem: the stage in that gym was much smaller than Jeffries and Fox expected. It took some adjusting to get the knee slide across the compact stage just right, but Fox pulled it off, giving fans a movie music moment that both thrills just as rock concerts do and brings on the laughter – Marty sliding across the tiny school stage with his Angus Young moves turned out to be another of the film’s golden comedy moments.
It had to be you, Johnny B. Goode
Try to imagine this iconic scene with a song other than “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s difficult, right? Well, it was difficult for Gale and Zemeckis too.
“We didn’t have an alternative,” Gale said.
The 1958 Chuck Berry song was in every version of the script from the earliest draft. (Though the first draft also had Marty transitioning from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Rock Around the Clock.”)
Gale recalls there being a period of two or three weeks when they worried they wouldn’t get the rights to the song. But Howe came through, and the production paid somewhere between $50,000 and $75,000 for the rights, as Gale recalls. “However much it was, it was very expensive in 1985 to pay that much for a song,” he said.
It ended up being worth it. The scene was a hit with test audiences in the months preceding the release and remains a fan favorite moment 30 years later.
Many artists can be credited with birthing rock and roll, Chuck Berry among them, but it’s Berry who can perhaps be singularly attributed with making the electric guitar the star instrument of rock.
“In the mid ’50s you look at who the other artists were that were emerging, you had Fats Domino and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis playing piano,” explained William McKeen, who teaches a course about the history of rock and roll at Boston University. “But it was the swagger of Chuck Berry that made the guitar the primary rock instrument.”
“Johnny B. Goode” was perfect for the scene: Marty, an aspiring rock star who wants to wow crowds with his guitar skills, is playing a song by one of the first great guitar players, a song all about a kid who could “play the guitar just like he’s ringing a bell.”
“[The scene] might have worked with some song by Elvis, but I think that would have missed the point because you never really listen to Elvis for the guitar playing,” McKeen said.
The song secured its place as an incomparably important song in rock ’n’ roll history in 1977, when the Voyager space probes launched. On that shuttle is a golden phonograph record containing “Johnny B. Goode.” If the Voyager reaches intelligent life, and if those extraterrestrials have ears, the Chuck Berry song will be among their first taste of Earthling music.
To get the classic rock song to work for “Back to the Future,” though, Hanson had to make a slight change. Marty says to the Starlighters, “This is a blues riff in B. Watch me for the changes, and try to keep up.”
But the song isn’t in B. It’s in B flat.
The recording you hear in the movie and on the soundtrack is indeed in B flat. But Hanson taught Fox to play the song in B.
“B flat is such a massively unusual key for guitar players,” Hanson explained. “B was a much more logical key for a guitar player from the ’80s . I don’t think Marty would have played it in B flat. He would have either played it in B or A.”
Now why did Berry write the song in B flat then? Horn players in the big band era often performed in B flat or E flat and other flat keys. The popularity of those keys lasted a bit into rock ’n’ roll’s early days.
The impromptu in-between takes jam sessions kept the party atmosphere going in that church gym for the four days of shooting the dance interior scenes. The number of extras each day varied – from 89 one day to 97 another to 118 to 189 – but however many there were, Waters and the band had them dancing during the breaks on set. The Starlighters, with the exception of Waters, were musicians, not actors, by profession.
Hanson recalled jamming with the band sometimes too, using the red guitar Marty and Marvin play, and said Fox jammed with the band as well.
“When we did ‘Part III,’ the same thing happened with ZZ Top,” Gale said. The rock band known for their long beards and songs like “Sharp Dressed Man” appeared as musicians at the town festival in 1885 Hill Valley. “[ZZ Top was] so cool. They were so great,” Gale continued. “They’re musicians, and they just want to play music. That’s all musicians ever want to do. So in between takes they were just playing, and it was just such a great kick to watch ZZ Top just jamming with some local musicians from Sonora, California.”
As for when Waters was performing when cameras were rolling, he made sure he had some pretty ladies in his eyeline.
“I told the cameraman, ‘Okay, so you want my focus over here? I need five girls to stand there.’ And he said, ‘Sure,’” Waters recalled. “So I had these five girls and a couple of them were [playing] the friends of [Lorraine]. So they became my little groupies.”
Some of the other people playing the teens at the dance were professional dancers.
“I had a couple of assistants to help me get the extras dancing within period,” Jeffries said.
There’s a memorable shot that has a camera moving in between the legs of a woman lifted upside down by her male partner, and then the camera punches in further toward the stage to give the audience a closer look at Marty on the guitar.
“That we figured out on set,” Jeffries said. “I showed that to Bob [Zemeckis], and he said, ‘Oh, could she do that here?’ And I was like, ‘Sure.’ So I just sort of helped place it with Bob to marry it to the camera moves, which is why I love Bob. Bob’s so incredibly easy to work with and wonderful and collaborative and not dictatorial at all. He just like, ‘What do you got?’ And I'm like, ‘Here’s what I've got.’ And he's like, ‘Okay. Let’s do this.’ So it was really easy.”
Sharp dressed boys and girls
All those boogieing extras had to be outfitted in 1950s-era clothing.
Costume designer Deborah L. Scott did a good deal of her research for the movie by flipping through ’50s school yearbooks, which is where the idea for the Enchantment Under the Sea theme came from (along with the originally intended theme for the dance: Springtime in Paris).
Scott also referred to 1950s fashion magazines, Montgomery Wards catalogs and Sears Roebuck catalogs. She looked closely at real clothes from the era.
“Once you start collecting them, and you’re looking at them, you go, ‘Oh wow, that’s where they put a zipper.’ So it’s real informative when you can be hands-on,” Scott told HitFix.
The costume designer had to make Lorraine’s gorgeous peach dress decently low cut to pull off the comedy of the scene between Marty and Lorraine in Doc’s car. Scott — who also designed Kate Winslet’s beautiful dresses for “Titanic” —explained that she committed to staying true to the period with Lorraine’s dress but went “right up to the line” of how low cut and sexy it could have realistically been.
George’s white dinner jacket and black bow tie would have been a little too formal for a high school dance, and that was intentional.
“It’s very proper, like his mother might have dressed him,” Scott said. “You see him and, then you’re like of like, ‘Oh he’s so cute. He’s so awkward.’”
In contrast, Marty wears what the coolest dude would have worn at a school dance in 1955: a flecky sports coat, two-tone shoes and a red necktie.
Scott says that it was particularly fun for her to collect the gowns for the extras at the dance. She worked with a “rainbow palette” and used more dresses made with taffetas than ones with chiffons and laces. Lorraine’s dress has a lacy overlay to make her stand out a bit.
The upkeep on all those dresses was quite the task.
“We were very adamant about girls not sitting because [the dresses] would get all wrinkled and squished in all those petticoats,” Scott said. “There was a lot of fluffing going on. And they had an old dancer’s trick – those leaning boards where you sort of lean back on this contraption. Or stools, so you could sit and put the dress over it.”
Thompson had another method for keeping her dress from wrinkling. She recalled, “I couldn’t wear that dress all the time, so I was always wearing a bustier and a crinoline. My mom [who visited set] was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re walking around in your underwear in front of hundreds of people!’ But I didn’t care.”
Also essential to completing the look for the scene was finding the right guitar for Marvin and Marty to play.
For this key prop, the production turned to Norman’s Rare Guitars in Tarzana, Calif.
The guitar that appears onscreen is a Gibson ES-345 — which didn’t exist in 1955, when the dance takes place. Harris explained to filmmakers that using that the ES-345 wouldn’t be period-accurate.
“The art director said he wanted it to be as close as possible, but he’s willing to give it some artistic license,” Harris told HitFix.
Initially, the art department had selected a guitar that was indeed made in 1955: a Gibson ES-5, a deep-bodied jazz guitar with three pickups and a sunburst finish. The switch to the ES-345 was made when the art director told Harris that they wanted a red guitar with a whammy bar.
As to where that guitar is now — it’s a mystery. The production rented it, opting not to buy it, from Norman’s Rare Guitars for both “Back to the Future” and its sequel. Harris sold it to a friend after “Back to the Future Part II” was released, and that since deceased friend is where the trail runs cold for this iconic movie prop. Desi DosSantos of movie prop auction company ScreenUsed told HitFix that he has not seen the guitar in the 20 years he’s been collecting movie props.
Here it goes again
When time came to recreate the Enchantment Under the Sea dance for the 1989 sequel to “Back to the Future,” the cast and crew got the closest experience to time travel they’ll likely ever get.
“Talk about a weird déjà vu. That was bizarre,” Jeffries, the choreographer, said.
For Marty’s return to that fateful dance on a stormy night, the production went to Stage 12 on the Universal lot. The scene was shot there instead of in the church basement again because they needed a higher ceiling to build the catwalk where Marty crawls above his past self.
“When they were shooting that, it felt like you could have walked out of Stage 12, and you’d be back in 1985 in the parking lot at the Methodist church. That’s how close it was,” Gale said.
Much attention was paid to getting the details to look the same as the first film, from the decor to the costumes. Thompson brought back her peach gown, which she had taken home with her, when the two duplicates of the dress were nowhere to be found. Today, she still has the dress, shoes and earrings she wore as Lorraine.
But there was one major difference between the two Enchantments Under the Sea: Crispin Glover did not reprise his role in “Back to the Future Part II.” Jeffrey Weissman filled in for the part of George McFly.
“I did not like that. That was no fun. I would have rather he was there instead of recreating a moment with a different actor dressed up as him,” Thompson told HitFix. For her, shooting those dance scenes was “super surreal” like it was for much of the cast and crew but ultimately it was “bittersweet” without Glover there, she said.
Here’s one moment when that set felt much more sweet than bitter: Oscar night, 1989. “Back to the Future” trilogy editor Arthur Schmidt won an Academy Award for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” that year, and after the awards ceremony he went to Stage 12, and a shiny new Oscar statuette was passed around at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
We will rock you forever
Marty’s rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” has left an indelible mark on pop culture, helping launch the movie’s soundtrack to gold certification (though that was largely thanks to “The Power of Love” single’s exclusive placement on the soundtrack), inspiring countless parodies, and igniting years of debate about whether Marty invented rock and roll. (Answer: No. Because a) On the phone call with his cousin Marvin, Chuck only hears Marty’s futuristic hard rock guitar solo. b) And regardless of that, on the original timeline, Chuck Berry still had to write the song. Gale and Zemeckis contend that they were not implying that a white kid inspired Berry to write his famous song. “Some people just don’t know that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a joke is just a joke,” Gale has said of the scene.) That shot of Marvin Berry on the phone, by the way, was filmed in one take, Waters told HitFix.
The scene’s iconic status in cinematic music history is quite the feat for a scene that was in danger of being cut from the movie.
The thinking, according to Gale, was “If the audience has ants in their pants, and if you feel like the movie is playing too long, that’s the cut we’d make. That was one of the things that we were most anxious about at the first sneak preview, to see how that scene was going to do because we stopped the movie to do a song. You’re not supposed to do that. But it didn’t matter.”
Film school lessons about moving the plot along didn’t stop the scene from enchanting viewers, including young Bill Hader, who first saw the film when he was seven.
“I just remember thinking, ‘He’s playing guitar. He’s the coolest guy in the world,’” the “Saturday Night Live” alum told HitFix’s Louis Virtel. “The first soundtrack I ever owned was ‘Back to the Future.’”
Fox has since performed the song onstage, including at his 2011 fundraiser, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Cure Parkinson’s (pictured above).
One big question remains: What does Chuck Berry himself think of the scene? The rock luminary is not one for interviews and has not spoken publicly about the movie that forever tied his song to Marty McFly and his tale of temporal displacement just as much as the DeLorean will be forever associated with the film. But perhaps Berry has left a hint or two that he is, indeed, a “Back to the Future” fan: At his 60th birthday concerts in 1986, his backing band — which included Keith Richards — wore outfits exactly like the Starlighters’.