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Chuck Berry wasn't just a god onstage — he was one onscreen too

Chuck Berry wasn't just a god onstage — he was one onscreen too
Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in "Back to the Future," one of several films that make good use of Chuck Berry's music. (Universal)

When Chuck Berry died on March 18, plenty was written about the rock 'n' roll icon's musical achievements.

But as profound an impact as Berry had on the music world — indeed, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and pretty much every other rock musician credits him as an influence — it's easy to overlook another medium that wouldn't have been the same without Berry.

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Berry's songs were a lot of things: catchy, infectious, invigorating. But more than anything they were cinematic. No wonder so many visually arresting film scenes have been scored to Chuck Berry tunes.

Sure, some have been pedestrian, such as Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band covering "Roll Over Beethoven" for the film "Beethoven," about an enormous, badly behaved dog. But Berry's music always set a joyous tone.

Take "Home Alone." The holiday classic features a snippet of Berry's original version of "Run Rudolph Run" as the McCallister family sprints through O'Hare airport. The song perfectly captures the harried holiday environment that might spur parents to completely overlook the fact that they've left one of their children home alone for Christmas.

In "Back to the Future," Berry's seminal hit "Johnny B. Goode" has a pivotal cameo, with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) performing the song at a school dance in 1955 with Marvin Berry calling his cousin (presumably Chuck) and informing him of a "new sound" he may be interested in.

Though the scene now reads a bit like whitewashing African Americans' contributions to rock 'n' roll, at the time it was a tacit acknowledgment that "Johnny B. Goode" was destined to change the world as we knew it.

Perhaps the best use of Berry's work in film is Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." Tarantino has always had a gift for picking the right music, but scoring the dance number between Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) to "You Never Can Tell" was a stroke of genius. Sans dialogue, Berry's lyrics about Pierre and Mademoiselle spoke for themselves, telling a story through song as Tarantino set the stage onscreen.

One of Berry's many talents was that ability to craft a fully formed narrative in just two and a half minutes. It's a gift that few in the musical arena could rival, and it's why his songs suit film so well.

Berry's music is vivid and wholly self-sufficient. Marty McFly doesn't have to speak. Neither do Wallace or Vega. Filmmakers set the scene, actors find their marks and for a few precious moments Chuck Berry tells the story.

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