22 March 2012
Director: Taylor Hackford
442 minutes, 4 DVDs 2006
Two distinct portraits of "Chuck Berry" emerge in this lavish four-disc set built around "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll", director "Taylor Hackford"'s 1986 documentary/concert film. On one side there's the "Chuck Berry" who wrote a catalogue's worth of genre-defining songs ("Maybellene", "Johnny B. Goode", "Roll Over Beethoven", and so many others), all of them filled with wit, delightful stories, and poetry. He's also the guitarist who virtually patented many of Rock's seminal licks, and the showman who attracted some top musicians to celebrate his 60th birthday with a concert in St. Louis, his hometown. On the other hand, there's the "Chuck Berry" who, in the course of the film as well as the accompanying bonus material, emerges as a prickly cheapskate who drove the filmmakers and musicians nuts with his absurd demands and unpredictable behavior. Together they make a fascinating look at the guy who justifiably calls himself "The Father of Rock 'n' roll".
Hackford's original film, now issued with a crisp, anamorphic transfer and digital sound, occupies Disc One. A parade of classics are heard during the climactic concert, performed by "Chuck Berry" and a superb band (led by "Keith Richards" and featuring guitarist "Robert Cray" and "Johnny Johnson", "Chuck Berry"'s original pianist, among others), with guest shots by "Eric Clapton" (smoking on the slow blues "Wee Wee Hours"), "Etta James", "Linda Ronstadt", and "Julian Lennon" (whose dad was an unabashed Berry fan). There are revealing offstage glimpses, too, like Berry confessing that he only took up music full-time because there was more money in it than in housepainting, or a weary, wasted Richards admitting that "I was mad to take the gig" but gamely standing up to his idol at every turn (watch for a memorable moment during the very first song of the concert, when Chuck attempts to change key in mid-tune and Keith sternly shakes him off).
The three discs of bonus features add a lot more to the portrait. Much of it is terrific: a nostalgic "Chuck Berry" poring over his scrapbook with "Robbie Robertson" of "The Band"; some lengthy rehearsal jams with Clapton, Richards, and James; hours (literally) of convivial conversation with "Little Richard", "Bo Diddley", and other Rock pioneers. But if you're the type who can't turn away from car wrecks, don't miss "The Reluctant Movie Star", an hour-long 'making of' documentary, for it's here that Hackford and the others who worked on the film tell their war stories. The "Chuck Berry" they know demanded to be paid every day, in cash, or he'd refuse to be filmed. He showed up for a dinner meeting at LA's posh Le Dome with a bag of McDonald's takeout. And two days before the St. Louis concert, he announced that he was leaving town for a gig in Ohio, where he proceeded to blow out his voice--so his vocals all had to be overdubbed after the fact (an extra payday, natch). "Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll" was already an entertaining two hours. But the various extra material, none of it seen before and all of it introduced by Hackford, makes this "ultimate collector's addition" a must-have.
The unforgettable life and music of pioneering legend "Chuck Berry" are celebrated in this landmark feature film, capturing a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of rock and roll's finest!