WHERE: In the front lobby of the building I work in
FORMAT: iTunes digital copy on an iPhone 4S, wearing Sony MDR-J10 clip-on headphones
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just ate some Chicago-style pizza, squeezing this viewing into the only two-hour hole I have in my week.
Sequels. Remakes. Prequels. Reboots. Spin-offs. These are just some of the things that terrify Back to the Future fans. In rare cases, they’re accepting of the idea of mining the franchise for new ideas (read: cash), but for the most part, we’d rather Hollywood get their damn hands off our precious trilogy. Hell, there’s even a website whose sole function is to inform you if they’ve remade Back to the Future yet. It’s scary thoughts like these that gave fans a reason to seriously distrust Zac Efron.
Who is otherwise a talented actor and decent human being in every respect.
So, while everybody has their own fan-fiction-y ways to keep the story going but nobody wants to see it done for real, I want to propose an even more baffling continuation of the Back to the Future series that’s the subject of my viewing today: could you successfully add to the narrative without time travel?
“When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, it’ll be going really fast.”
I’m not saying we re-write it so that there’s no DeLorean, I’m just saying there are so many interesting side stories going on in Hill Valley that I think there’s potential for a spin-off centered around characters others than Doc and Marty. Here are a few examples before I reveal that I’m most interested in talking about the character in the title of this article:
- Strickland has been the principal of the same high school for thirty years. Seeing the changes to Hill Valley High through his eyes could be interesting. It would probably be best as a goofy teen comedy, but who knows? Maybe there’s dramatic Oscar bait in there.
- I’ve already written about the passionate head-butting between Goldie Wilson and Clocktower Lady over replacing the clock in the courthouse square. This could be the premise for a great social satire, mocking large-scale politics at the local level. Also, actor and comedian Donald Glover has jokingly claimed he would like to write a musical about Goldie Wilson. Somebody greenlight that and get him a director’s hat. Now.
- What’s brewin’ over at Lou’s Cafe? Let’s find out! Why, there he is now, chatting with local manure hauler D. Jones about that new Ronald Reagan picture, Cattle Queen of– okay, enough, I pick Marvin Berry.
High school dance after high school dance takes its toll on a man.
Hey, before we talk about Marvin, did you know that the “Johnny B. Goode” scene is, like, SUPER racist? Holy shit, I’d better talk about that first since nobody ever has, oh, wait, all of these links here, oops.
Well, since you clearly need my two cents on this issue or we are through as a couple, I only saw the “listen to this white kid inventing black music!” scene as a cutesy time travel joke when I was but a lad, as the races of the characters involved in that scenario didn’t matter to me because all seven-year-olds are itty bitty “I don’t see race” assholes, as we all know. It definitely bothered me a couple of years later when I was in an elementary school class on rock ‘n’ roll; while I wasn’t quite aware of movies having subtext, I knew that it didn’t make any sense historically. When I got a little older and became really obsessed with time travel, I eventually pieced together that this entire scene isn’t even possible based on Back to the Future‘s temporal rules, which I eventually wrote up into a piece on mutable vs. immutable timelines that I link to on this website every goddamned chance I get because it was a lot of work and you should read it, please, I beg you. Still, while the joke doesn’t work on Hill Valley’s space-time laws, nor under the basic logic of an entire musical movement that definitely already existed kicking off by someone hearing a small chunk of a single song through a shitty 1950s telephone… my opinion on the racism of this scene ultimately boils down to “uncomfortably iffy as fuck.”
I was tempted to quickly move on from this topic and get back to my premise of a Marvin Berry spin-off movie, with some similar links on more modern films and shows, but racism is one of many issues that Marvin and the Starlighters would have to deal with in their own movie, in 1955 and beyond. I mean, Jesus, I still get squirmy awful feelings every time one of Biff’s goons just casually tosses out “spook.”
Show of hands, who else’s mom quickly jumped in to tell you never to use that word?
What really interests me about a Marvin Berry movie is a chance to follow the Starlighters from gig to gig, playing high school dances and whatever else they can get, never really making it big. It could be a commentary on fame, jealousy, talent, racial equality, musical genres… and the whole time Chuck’s star is on the rise somewhere else. You could structure it with cuts from Starlighters gigs to conversations between Chuck and Marvin. It could be a refreshing spin on the musician biopic genre by blatantly not following the famous musician.
A genre whose previous “fresh spins” are straight-up parodies and whatever the fuck this is.
Of course, the problem with any “side-quel” (ugh) is the inevitable connection to the original, which is usually forced and uninteresting. Sure, Chuck could ask Marvin, “So why’d you put that kid on the phone the one time?” Maybe even make a joke about how he couldn’t hear it anyway, but that might feel like Bob and Bob apologizing for the original scene. (The racism and the violation of their own time travel rules, amirite?) No, I think directly tying it in to the events of Back to the Future would make it feel like a sketch that’s been drawn out to two hours, and let’s be honest, most Back to the Future sketches barely have enough funny to last two minutes.
“Hey, Marvin! Put on that funny bald principal you’re always talking about!”
At this point, you could be arguing that the idea of a famous musician’s cousin could be enough to sustain an entire movie, so why not leave Universal copyright issues with Marvin behind and make a movie about Steve Presley or Ed Lennon or Sally Morrison? Well, there are certain aspects of Marvin Berry’s character that add intrigue to the idea. Here are a few questions I jotted down about Marvin that could be mined for a spin-off film:
- How much do Marvin and the Starlighters enjoy their gigs? They toke up in the car between songs at shitty high school dances, some punk-ass racist kids lock a guy in their trunk and Marvin cuts his hand getting him out, they sub in Marty and he hogs the spotlight… this could be just one in a series of awful gigs. As someone who’s hopped from stage to stage in his lifetime, I find tales of performers on the road to be funny, heartbreaking, and strangely rewarding. Doubly so when traveling life completely sucks, but the performers just can’t stop.
- Marvin vaguely describes “Johnny B. Goode” as a new “sound.” If you find it so catchy, why run to the phone and call a relative about it? Does Marvin himself not enjoy rock ‘n’ roll? Was he recognizing that the one song sounded similar to what his cousin Chuck likes to play, but Marvin is more of a jazz man himself? If Marvin simply prefers what he and the Starlighters play, that could be worked into the script. Is Chuck’s success based on musical style alone? Maybe Marvin tries a genre switch and he’s no good at rock. Or maybe he’s great at it, but people simply just like Chuck more. There’s so much potential for competitiveness there.
- It wasn’t an issue at the time the movie was made, but Chuck Berry was no saint. How would his bathroom videotaping scandal change Marvin’s relationship with Chuck? Would Marvin come to appreciate being left out of the spotlight? And seriously, would he even talk to Mr. Peepee-Cam again?
- Wait a minute, why the hell does Marvin– hold on, this one’s too big for bullet points. Also, it has nothing to do with a spin-off movie.
Okay. That’s better. Why the hell does Marvin let Marty get on the mic in the first place? Let’s recap. After Marvin accidentally cuts his hand with a screwdriver, he lets Marty stand in for him on guitar while he stays on vocals. When they start their rendition of “Earth Angel,” Marvin seems skeptical, but it could be worse.
Marvin grabs the mic and gives it all he’s got. Not long into the song, Marty’s ability to play begins disappearing from reality because that ginger-headed menace Dixon is putting the moves on his mom-to-be. He starts splanking around on random strings, and not in a jazz way. In a shit way.
When it looks like George isn’t going to bring his Marty-making sperm to the rescue, Marty collapses in a heap because he is beginning to physically not exist. During the majority of the song, he’s on the floor, growing a fake-looking hole in his hand, definitely not touching the guitar at all. The piano player behind him is concerned and checks up on the poor bastard, who tells him that he can’t play.
But what’s this? George intervenes in what could have been the second sexual assault of the night and the most goddamned romantic kiss ever happens, jolting Marty back into this world as a guitar-playing virtuoso!
Now that he’s back in the game, he’s totally focused on– Marty, what the fuck? Stop waving at your dad and strum that shit.
Alright, so it’s a wonderful scene for the audience, but everybody in the room except Marty knows dick about time travel or ripple effects or why a guitarist is missing body parts. From the perspective of anyone in attendance, including the band, here’s what they got: a few chords, batshit insanity, silence, silence, more silence, just mostly a whole lot of silence, a couple chords, silence again, then really nailing those last two strums. This performance wouldn’t make it through Guitar Hero, let alone the judgment of any talented musician. But how does Marvin Berry react?
“Beats the hell outta my screwdriver hand! Get your ass over here, you lovable scamp!”
Not only does he let Marty keep playing, he invites him to sing as well.
This bothered me so much that I couldn’t wait until writing this article to get an answer, so I whipped up an image and sent it around the Internet. Most people argued that, fuck you, everything in this movie is perfect and Marty totally rocking that last chord was enough to impress Marvin, and to those people, I recommend something called “sunlight.” I think you’re really gonna enjoy it. A few others pointed out that Marvin was puffing on “jazz cigarettes” with the band earlier in the film, so maybe he was really grooving on Marty’s mind-blowing new spin on a Penguins classic.
Which begs the question: just how good is that weed?
That’s certainly a good theory, but here’s my take: it’s just one of those “fuck it” nights. Everything’s going to shit anyway? Come here, kid, the mic’s all yours. And that’s why I’d watch a movie about Marvin Berry and the Starlighters. How many “fuck it” nights can one band take? What’s it like living in the shadow of fame? Will they ever do something that really cooks?
This summer… don’t nobody go nowhere.