Marty McFly performs “Johnny B. Goode” in a pivotal scene, and there is an explanation of how this isn’t precisely a bootstrap paradox.
Marty McFly’s “Johnny B. Goode” performance during the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Back to the Future can be viewed as a bootstrap paradox. Chuck Berry released the song in 1958, three years after the dance’s 1955 setting. A joke during the performance sees the bandleader, and Chuck Berry’s cousin, Marvin Berry, calling Chuck on the phone to give the song a listen, suggesting that Marty McFly’s performance inspired the original piece.
Some factors can explain how Marty McFly performing “Johnny B. Goode” isn’t precisely a bootstrap paradox, which is a time-travel paradox occurring when something from the future creates a causal relationship for something that already existed in the time traveler’s past. This includes how the song’s main riff was written in 1946 and performed by Carl Hogan on “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman.” Even distorted guitars aren’t paradoxical since that sound was invented in 1951. However, some elements of the paradox remain and have been problematic regarding Chuck Berry’s legacy.
Back To The Future’s Bootstrap Paradox Still Applies (Sort Of)
While theoretically, the “Johnny B. Goode” riff and use of distorted guitars existed in 1955, Marty McFly still creates a bootstrap paradox with the performance of the song’s arrangement, melody, and lyrics. The bootstrap paradox asks whether Chuck Berry’s music inspired Marty McFly or if it was, in fact, the other way around. By choosing to perform this song and allowing Marvin Berry to call his cousin, Marty inadvertently disrupted the time-space continuum in worse ways than disrupting his parents’ courtship.
Why Back To The Future’s Chuck Berry Scene Is Controversial
While likely considered by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale to be a harmless time-travel joke, the suggestion that Marty McFly inspired Chuck Berry to write “Johnny B. Goode” was harmful to the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s legacy by overshadowing the role black musicians played in the creation of the genre. Zemeckis and Gale could have used a song by a white artist such as Elvis or Buddy Holly for a similar effect but instead chose Chuck Berry to become the butt of this time travel joke (via Forbes). However, any harm this scene caused to Chuck Berry’s career was likely an unintentional move by Zemeckis and Gale.
Making films about time travel can get quite complicated, and there are likely more paradoxes throughout the Back to the Future series. While the consequences of such paradoxes as the one caused by Marty McFly performing “Johnny B. Goode” are fun to discuss and dissect, Back to the Future is ultimately a family comedy that should be enjoyed for what it is. While any harm caused by Marty McFly appropriating “Johnny B. Goode” is a shame, at the very least, it allows younger audiences to discover Chuck Berry’s music.