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Back to the Future

Nothing bothers me more than when you can tell that that an actor on screen can’t play a musical instrument that’s supposed to be integral to their character. I’m a musician, as well, and my eye immediately goes to the fingers of an actor trying to mimic guitar parts or piano notes. Worse, a fake drummer stands out like a sore thumb in a movie or TV show. Just learn the song! You are being paid! That’s what Michael J. Fox did for his iconic guitar-playing scene in Back to the Future, and it’s a huge reason why that scene works so well.

As part of its upcoming Heroes issue, Empire spoke with Michael J. Fox about the preparation that went into that memorable scene. As the actor recalls:

When I did the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ scene, I had a great guitar teacher who taught me how to play. I said to Bob [Zemeckis], ‘When I do this scene, I play guitar, so you can finger sync me. Feel free to cut to my hands any time you want.’ Having said that, it put pressure on me to get it fucking right. So I had this guy named Paul Hanson, who was my guitar teacher.

Marty McFly (Fox) wasn’t even supposed to be up on that stage at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. He needed his parents to kiss. He needed them to dance. But the house band’s guitar player, Marvin, damaged his hand, so Marty – who can play – agree to fill in. It works! George McFly (Crispin Glover) kisses Lorraine (Leah Thompson), and Marty’s future is secured.

But before he goes, he’s coaxed into doing one more song. Something that really cooks. You remember this, right?

Of course you do. In the interview, Michael J. Fox goes on to confirm that the dance moves in that sequence were suggested by him, and choreographed by an instructor who had worked with Madonna. The Eighties!

For about four weeks we worked this piece and at the same time I was working with this choreographer for Madonna. I said, ‘I dance like a duck. I can’t dance. But what I’d like to do is incorporate all the characteristics and mannerisms and quirks of my favorite guitarists, so a Pete Townshend windmill, and Jimi Hendrix behind the back, and a Chuck Berry duck walk.’ And we worked all that in, and he made it flow. It was moments like that when you don’t think, ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I feel pressure to do this.’ You just do it, and have a blast.

And he’s right. Their kids really did love it. Can you think of blatant examples of bad “musician acting” in a film? For whatever reason, I’m more enamored with the actors who DO learn to play. Ryan Gosling on piano in La La Land jumps to mind. Or all the guys in The Wonders from That Thing You Do! Hit the comments and remind me of some terrible ones from over the years.