DVD Review: Chuck Berry, “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll”

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Chuck Berry | Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (Collector’s Edition) | (Shout! Factory Select)

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

“He gives me more headaches than Mick Jagger,” rasps Keith Richards at the end of this 1986 documentary, now released for the first time on Blu-ray. After watching the two hour film and over 7 hours of extras, that’s an understatement.

Richards, a lifelong Chuck Berry fan (Berry’s “Carol” was covered on the Rolling Stones’ 1964 debut), intended to pay tribute to his idol by staging a 60th birthday concert in Berry’s hometown of St. Louis, backing him with a great band (drummer Steve Jordan, keyboardist Chuck Leavell and perhaps most importantly original Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson) instead of the often ragtag local pickup musicians he has used for decades of touring. Richards also invited guests like Etta James, Eric Clapton (who burns up a stunning slow blues “Wee Wee Hours”), Linda Ronstadt and Robert Cray to join the festivities. Director Taylor Hackford was tapped to not only capture the performance but provide biographical details about Berry’s life.

It’s safe to say no one involved understood the complications and even dangerous situations that would plague this production. The cliché “labor of love” doesn’t begin to address the hassles that Richards, Hackford and others involved in the project endured at the hands of the mercurial Berry.

Ultimately, the two hour documentary displays Berry’s warts and all personality. The concert is frustratingly cut up and interspersed with talking head footage from Berry, family, friends and especially other musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Roy Orbison. But the feature is a mesmerizing document of an extremely conflicted legend, one who, among many other issues, could not remember the words to some of his biggest hits.

There is no doubting the importance of Chuck Berry’s music. He is inarguably the father of rock and roll as we know it, a writer whose often poetic, humorous and literate lyrics addressed social issues as well as more common topics such as cars, school and of course relationships. His rambunctious, riff oriented tunes combined blues, country, R&B and even gospel influences to yield what we now call rock and roll. Both the Beatles and the Stones recorded Berry’s songs, bringing him to a level of popularity few others on the Chess Records roster achieved. But a closer look at Berry reveals a portrait of a man who wavered between charming and nasty within minutes. His near pathological focus on money obscures much else about him. It almost derailed this venture as he required thousands of dollars in cash delivered in paper bags before he would appear for scenes. Some of his other peculiarities such as upsetting Richards’ attempt to stage the high profile concert by blowing out his voice before the show (extensive vocal overdubs were done to cover that up) are also highlighted in the extras.

Between the crisply remastered film on one disc and a second of bonus material about both the difficulties of making of the movie along with often fascinating full interviews with Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others, including fly-on-the-wall rehearsal footage, this is a revealing and sometimes wince-inducing examination of Berry. It exposes the many contradictory aspects, some quite dark, of one of America’s most lauded, controversial and possibly misunderstood musicians. Hackford also profiles Richards who knew working with Berry would be problematic, but seems to admit he bit off more than he could chew. Still, the frequently doctored concert footage that was Richards’ primary involvement is generally impressive even with loose cannon Berry. A post-show interview with the slumped over, barely conscious Stones’ co-founder nevertheless shows a tender, gentle and introspective side few have seen.

Certainly the film alone succeeds on its own merits. But the hours of bonus material exploring not only the obstacles the makers faced putting it together but clarifying the roots of rock and roll in general, is what transports this into essential viewing status. 

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