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St. Louis, 1986. For Chuck Berry's 60th, Keith Richards assembles a pickup band of Robert Cray, Joey Spampinato, Eric Clapton, himself, and long-time Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson. Joined on stage by Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, and Julian Lennon, Berry performs his classic rock songs. His abilities as a composer, lyricist, singer, musician, and entertainer are on display and, in behind-the-scenes interviews, are discussed by Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springstein, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, and others. There's even a rarity for Berry, a rehearsal. Archival footage from the early 1950s and a duet with John Lennon round out this portrait of a master. Written by
To hear Bruce Springsteen say he first heard Chuck Berry via the music of the Stones makes me feel ancient. I was thirteen when I first heard Chuck Berry on a car radio in 1955 jamming out "Maybelline," the first true rock song I had ever heard. This was before the King, Elvis, signed with RCA and popularized the rock 'n' roll sound for us all.
In celebration of his sixtieth birthday, Chuck, with the help of friends, rocks out with many of his creations. The Berry rifts are still fast and furious but there is now an air of cynicism that was absent at the creation. Those unfamiliar with the early Berry sound should check out the original recordings to hear Chuck wail out his affirmation of youth and beauty. "Sweet Little Sixteen" was written and performed by Chuck Berry when he was thirty two years old; yet the rocker captures the innocence and lust of being young and carefree. Chuck continued through his music to invent many of the terms and lingo of the youth culture taking shape at the time. The only other recording artist of the day to even come close to Chuck Berry's lyrics of teen angst and a vocabulary to accompany it was Carl Perkins.
Chuck Berry was a seminal artist in the early history of rock 'n' roll. His approach was revolutionary, not just rebellious. Listen to the words of "Roll Over Beethoven." Chuck is stating emphatically that the new movement in American music is not merely a fad as critics would have it but a complete overhaul in musical standards: "...and tell Tschaikowsky the news."
One of the highlights of "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" is seeing and hearing the three pioneers of early rock exchanging barbs and ideas with each other. Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry discuss the white cover versions of black songs so prevalent in the record industry of the 1950's. Bo Diddley tries to keep an open mind about it all, for example, saying that Dick Clark couldn't showcase a mixed dance crowd on his "American Bandstand" because the producers wouldn't permit it. Little Richard interjects humor into the proceedings when he talks about white-shoes Pat Boone crooning "Tutti Frutti," making the salacious lyrics, "Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom," sound like light opera. Little Richard comments with a smile that he got over Pat Boone bowdlerizing "Tutti Frutti" only to have him expropriate "Long Tall Sally" ducking back in the alley. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, is militant and angry about the theft of property by the white record producers from black artists.
Chuck Berry has good reason to be so adamant in his denunciation of the racial overtones that existed in the record business of the 50's, for he suffered not just monetary loss as a result; his private life suffered too. Chuck wouldn't talk about his run-ins with the law for director Taylor Hackford, saying that he would discuss it in its proper context but not across an office desk. Chuck made a fantastic comeback in 1964 following a prison term resulting from a setup engineered by the government. Since Chuck refuses to comment on it, we may never know for sure exactly what happened.
One of Chuck's songs that stands out today is "Too Much Monkey Business." When Chuck recorded this in 1956, it represented, to my knowledge, the first rock 'n' roll protest song, several years before Bob Dylan would turn the rock world around with his protest-oriented music. Only one other protest rock song of any significance came out during the early days of rock 'n' roll. That was the Coasters' "What About Us?" not nearly as good as "Too Much Monkey Business."
There are better rock concert films around, the quintessence being "The Last Waltz," but this is the only place where rock fans can get a glimpse of the legendary Chuck Berry in all his glory accompanied by some of the best musicians in the business. It's easy to understand why NASA put "Johnny B. Goode" on the Voyager Golden Record as the best example of American Rock 'n' Roll.
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