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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
I don't think many people saw Hail Hail Rock and Roll when it came out in 1987. I've always considered it one of the greatest Rock and Roll movies ever made, and actually own it on VHS. Now that it's out on DVD (4 discs!), I'm working through the bonus discs.
Disc 2 contains a number of rehearsals plus a piece on what a nightmare it was to work with Chuck Berry on this project (which was, after all, to celebrate himself!). In the film, if I remember correctly, Keith Richards says something like, "Man, I've worked with Mick Jagger, but this guy (Chuck) is something else." Now, on this DVD, the producers tell their story, and what a story it is. A lot has been said about the great scene in the movie where Chuck continually criticizes Keith's guitar playing on "Carol", but that is nothing compared to what he put the producers through, between constantly asking for more money, being late or not showing up, plus an incredible experience at one of the prisons where Chuck spent time in his youth. (On the other hand, even in 1987, everyone knew Chuck Berry was a total prima donna, so expecting to get all the filming done in 5 days was a bit of hubris, no?) While this piece is a bit wordy (as many "bonus features" are), it's a great story, and it's too bad there wasn't more film and less shots of people speaking to the camera.
The rehearsals really show the difference between Chuck Berry when he's off stage (picky, self-centered, neurotic) and Chuck when he's performing (a unique entertainer). The rehearsals all take place at Chuck's house, and the main players are Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Johnny Johnson. Again, too much "talking heads" between the music, but the point of the rehearsals (we're told, but can also see), is to witness the incredible coming together of the band as they learn to play with each other. That's something you rarely see, particularly with musicians of this caliber, and if you love Chuck Berry music, you'll really love these rehearsals tapes.
On the production side, I thought the sound and camera work was uniformly excellent for the live music parts of the disc.
Disc 3 contains three bonus features. The one I liked most was titled "Chuckisms" and covers Chuck's language and love of poetry. The best scene is with Chuck reciting a William Wordsworth poem from memory while Robbie Robertson strums his guitar. "Just beautiful," as Chuck says several times in the recitation. You can really hear the origin of Chuck's own lyrics.
The second bonus feature has Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck sitting around a piano discussing the early days of rock and roll. This feature touches (very lightly) on the trials of black performers in the 1950's trying to break into the white-dominated business. However, mostly due to the influence of Little Richard, it never really gets very serious. If you're really interested in this period, I recommend Chuck Berry's autobiography.
The last feature on disc 3 is Robbie Robertson and Chuck sitting around the coffee table talking about Chuck's life as they go through a huge scrapbook. This has some poignant moments, but again, only lightly touches on stuff that Chuck's autobiography covers in great detail. I have to wonder if Robbie Robertson knew much about Chuck Berry before sitting down with him. He asks questions like, "Why did you write about high school?", when everyone knows that Chuck wrote about what his fans were interested in, because Chuck himself was mostly interested in making money.
As a result, I think the Robertson interview gives the wrong impression, of Chuck as a genius inventing a new music form. The truth, if you believe the autobiography, is that Chuck had a genius, but it was for being incredibly sensitive to his audiences. When they applauded, he did more of what caused that, and when they didn't, he didn't do that again. Robertson also mis-reads Chuck (I thought it was pretty funny), when he calls Chuck's second prison term, "running into a brick wall". Chuck says, not at all, that's where he took all those business courses that made him into the businessman he is, and as a result, he's rich when many of his contemporaries are not. Robertson also seems amazed that Chuck never took drugs. Chuck replies that with a list of entertainers (Elvis, Janis, etc.) who are now dead, and he does have a point.
I thought the part about why Chuck's lyrics are so easy to hear missed the truth. The truth was that Chuck listened to music, and realized that the guys (white) who were making the money clipped their words distinctly, so he did too. As a result of that (plus a publicity photo that made him look white), Chuck got booked in venues where he could not play when he showed up. Did he mind? Not if he was paid.
So, in summary, disc 3 is exactly what the director promised. They had a lot of footage that didn't make it into the film, for good reason, so they stuck it in the bonus features. I recommend disc 3 for folks who just can't get enough of Chuck Berry. There is almost no music on this disc, but Chuck comes across very well and the mature "Father of Rock and Roll".
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