With the passing of a rock ‘n’ roll legend, the Snooty Ushers look at two of the most iconic scenes in film, both of which played out to the music of Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry was a pioneer of rock and roll in the 1950’s. Being born into a middle class family he was never subjected to the poverty that forged many of the great blues musicians, however he got into trouble with the law and was jailed in his teenage years. After his release he started working in St Louis’ nightclubs – playing mostly country music to white audiences. A trip to Chicago led to him meeting Muddy Waters, and in late 1955 he released “Maybellene”. It was a huge hit, selling over a million copies, then in 1956 he followed it up with “Roll Over Beethoven”. And the rest was history…
Well, not quite. After spending the latter half of the Fifties touring and releasing hit record after hit record, Berry was jailed again in 1959 for transporting a 14 year old girl across State lines with allegations of a sexual relationship. He was released (after an appeal and retrial that found him guilty again) in 1963 – but remarkably was able to return to a level approaching his previous fame because, in his absence, bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had covered his songs, bringing his music to a whole new, booming generation. Although his touring and performances became erratic, his legend was secured by his early success, and he continued to perform into his eighties before his death at the age of 90.
However, we are here to talk about is his contribution to the world of cinema. And although “Run Rudolph Run” is the go-to rock ‘n’ roll Christmas song, and so features in many, many, many Christmas films, there are two iconic scenes that owe their soundtrack to Chuck Berry. I really couldn’t choose between them, so let’s go chronologically:
Back To The Future – “Johnny B. Goode”
So, after getting his mum and dad together in the same place, Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) has to save the day yet again by stepping in to replace Marvin, the guitarist in the band playing at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. The dance is where his parents kiss for the first time and “if there’s no music they can’t dance. If they can’t dance they can’t kiss, if they can’t kiss, they can’t fall in love!” With singer and guitarist Marvin sporting an injured hand, Marty fills in on guitar and during “Earth Angel” (a rather slow version I’ve always thought), George finally locks lips with Lorraine and the future of the McFly family is secured. The crowd want more, and Marvin hands over the microphone to young Marty. What follows is a show of joy and youthful exuberance as his rips into a “blues riff in ‘B‘” and tells the band “watch me for the changes, and try and keep up, okay?”
He even throws in the Chuck Berry duck walk, before the Eddie Van Halen style tapping starts. Of course, Marvin rings his cousin, Chuck, and tells him this is the new sound he has been looking for. Although many point out that this was set 3 years before the song was released, meaning Berry “stole” the song from McFly, I’ve always thought that it was a reference to the fact that Berry released “Johnny B Goode” (which was the first real example of what we know as Chuck Berry’s sound) under a year after the events at Hill Valley High.
Robert Zemeckis wanted to cut the scene because he felt the films stopped just to allow for the performance, before an editor persuaded him to keep it in. Thank goodness he listened.
Snooty Usher Movie Trivia Fact #376 – Marty’s singing voice is dubbed by Mark Campbell, lead singer of Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.
Pulp Fiction – “You Never Can Tell”
One time actress Mia Wallace (Uma Thruman) is placed in the care of Vincent Vega (John Travolta) by her husband Marcellus (Ving Rhames in the role that made his career) while he is in Florida. The two go to Fifties style restaurant Jack Rabbit Slims, and are served by a Buddy Holly waiter played by Steve Buscemi. After some idle chit chat and their meal, they (or rather Mia) decide to enter the Twist Contest, and we are served up with this slice of fried cinematic gold.
This is such a great scene. Oozing cool and tension, it is one of the most iconic sequences of Tarantino’s career. And it was mostly improvised by Uma Thurman and John Travolta! But there are two things that I always think of when watching this scene: first, how did a legendary nerd like Quentin Tarantino direct these two people in this scene? I just imagine him only being able to do it by having clips from dance scene in movies and showing them what he wanted, his only way of traversing the huge divide of cool between them and him being the medium of film. And secondly, although it’s an excellent scene, I always think Tarantino got every last second of footage that he could of them dancing. They start to repeat dance moves, and I reckon the reason for the camera panning away is that he realised they were coming to the end of their repertoire.
It’s so good, no one even mentions that “Never Can Tell” was actually released in 1964.
Snooty Usher Movie Trivia Fact #377 – Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein wanted to open a chain of Jack Rabbit Slims restaurants across America. But… he didn’t.
John Lennon once said “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” He was part of a select group of musicians who defined the rules for how rock and roll sounded, what rock and roll meant as a form of expression, and just what rock and roll was. These two scenes, in films made decades after his heyday, show just how significantly he contributed to popular culture.
RIP Chuck Berry.
Until next time, stay gold Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.