Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties

By Palmer, Landon | Music, Sound and the Moving Image, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties


Palmer, Landon, Music, Sound and the Moving Image


Michael D. Dwyer Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties New York: Oxford University Press, 2015: 240pp. ISBN-13: 9780199356836

The moment in Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985) in which time-travelling 1980s teenager Marty McFly 'covers' Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B. Goode' (1958) for a white suburban 1955 dancehall audience - three years before Berry himself recorded the hit - has grown into a widely cited index for white displacement and appropriation of African-American musical history. As part of the film's idealistic and selective vision of fifties America viewed through the kaleidoscope of Reagan-era nostalgia, this scene, as summarised by Andrew Shail and Robert Stoate, serves as one of the most 'widely observed example[s]' of Back to the Future 's 'rewriting of cultural history' (2010, p.43). In what Mark Winokur describes as a 'comic obfuscation' of vernacular music history (1991, p.202), the film's portrayal of Chuck Berry's fictional cousin 'Marvin Berry' informing the influential rock 'n' roll musician that he found 'that new sound you're looking for' 'iterates a desire for white America to feel less indebted to black culture for its cultural structures' (Shail & Stoate, 2010, p.43). The prevalence of this critique of Back to the Future's potent tongue-in-cheek erasure of post-war cultural history is hardly isolated to academia. During tours of his independently produced It? film trilogy, co-star Crispin Glover regaled audiences with accounts of his unsuccessful attempts to convince Zemeckis to reconsider the film's troubling messages about race and materialism (Glover, 2013), and producer Bob Gale has pointedly defended this 'comic' moment against accusations of racism (Davis, 2012). By the time of 'Back to the Future Day' in October 2015, the film's use of 'Johnny B. Goode' had arguably solidified into a metonym for its idealised white gaze into a mid-century past that never really existed (Christopher, 2015).

In his book Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties, Michael D. Dwyer takes a common sense trope of cultural criticism represented by the reception of moments like these - that a Reagan-era revival of fifties culture across movies, music, and politics served regressive political ends based on a selective interpretation of history - and urges readers to understand the nostalgic recycling of culture with a degree of critical nuance and specificity that 'reflectionist' modes of criticism rarely provide. The point of Dwyer's intervention is not so much to challenge or recuperate many of the conclusions drawn from such examples of cultural criticism. Instead, Dwyer rigorously explores precisely how and to what political ends 'the fifties' have recirculated throughout the later twentieth century. Problematising Fredric Jameson's understanding of 'nostalgia films' as exhibiting postmodernism's 'crisis of historicity' (1984, pp.65-66), Dwyer approaches nostalgia not as a passive engagement in selective cultural amnesia, but as a 'productive' and heterogeneous activity evinced by the work of politicians, film-makers, musicians, and media industries towards a variety of cultural and political projects of the present (pp.20-22). The author, for example, arrives at similar conclusions about Back to the Future's moment of time-travelling musical appropriation, but via a different path, arguing that the film manifests a Reagan-era view of the fifties beyond simple erasure, through the ways in which Back to the Future and Reagan's political rhetoric dually 'foster nostalgic affect prompted by critical reflection on contemporary historical conditions, and promote selective versions of the past to suit their visions of the future' (p.43). Back to the Fifties thus makes the case for a textually rooted historiography of nostalgia itself, demonstrating throughout this volume how invocations of the fifties were utilised across the seventies and eighties for 'diverse and sometimes competing ends' - some progressive, many in the interests of the New Right, but none so straightforward as echoes of cultural critique have posited them to be (p. …

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