June 27 marked the long overdue re-issue of the out-of-print Taylor Hackford masterpiece film, Chuck Berry: Hail Hail, Rock ‘N’ Roll. Having been present in St. Louis for the two legendary concerts that were held to generate footage for the film, being that I was covering the ensuing events for a magazine, to now see the film reissued twenty years later, and looking back on it now, it feels no more, nor no less, musically historic than it did back then. I was keenly aware of what I was witnessing in 1986, with its karmic depth on many levels, and what the film would come to represent as far as paying dues and paying musical debts.
The object of making of the film, was not only to pay tribute to Chuck Berry as an artist, but to also try to decipher the enigma behind the music. The resulting work is not just about the singer, but also about the songs, and the music that would drive both of these. The raw honesty and no holds barred approach of the newly revamped film directed by Hackford, enhanced in this four-disc set, with its added special features, flawlessly punctuates the meaningful relevance the film has, and that it will continue to have long into the future. The documentary is deeply woven by its many subtexts, one of which includes the musical and karmic mission accomplished by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.
Chuck Berry’s status arguably includes being the most copied guitarist in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Part of the collective unconscious of rock, his songs have been covered by countless artists, most notably the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, David Bowie, AC/DC, the MC5, and scads more, including punkers such as the Ramones and the Sex Pistols have also paid homage to him. Berry’s double string licks and bends have become anthemic symbols of power, which have been passed on for fifty years of rock. Hackford attempts to find their source and inspiration, and the result is this film.
Re-released by Image Entertainment, the film is now seen in widescreen High Definition with remastered DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, along with the original Dolby Stereo theatrical mix. A two-disc version is being released, as well as a special four-disc collectors item set. Also new to the DVD version is close to an hour of never-before-seen concert rehearsals, and an unedited version of the footage that was gleaned when Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry all met together for the first time, reminiscing about the history of rock and roll, to engage in a revealing conversation about racism, economics and the music business. Additional interview footage includes Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Willie Dixon, Roy Orbison and other major figures in rock ‘n’ roll. The rehearsal footage seen in the original version of the movie, as well as that found in the extra features, is also quite remarkable in many ways, owing to the tension between battle-ready Richards and Berry. Sparks fly, while the rest of the band, and others in the room, watch vigilantly, as flames shoot out of Keith’s nose during rehearsals.
On October 16, 1986, the evening of Berry’s sixtieth birthday, two concerts were held at the Fox Theater in St. Louis, which are seen in the documentary. On stage, Berry and Richards exchanged their trademark licks and rhythms that ultimately changed and directed the course of rock ‘n’ roll, while a slew of special guests appeared on stage. Among them, John Lennon’s son, Julian, sang “Johnny B. Goode,” sporting his hair dyed black in a fifties ‘do. Even Berry could not help but remark how much he looked and sounded like his late father, who had earlier often remarked about how Berry was a guitar hero of his, and how much he respected the intelligence of his innovative lyrics.
Also part of the enduring legacy of the concert is footage of Etta James’ standout version of “Rock And Roll Music.” Clapton and Richards set off a riveting blues jam, bleeding chunky guitar riffs that oozed from the stage like a tantalizing potion pouring sheer magic. Steve Jordan’s extraordinary drumming was yet another high point of the musical moments of the film. As part of the set’s new features, Jordan is interviewed about how he was chosen as the band’s drummer, and he candidly addresses some of his professional experiences. Other must-see compelling interview footage in the film, itself, includes Bruce Springsteen, always a captivating storyteller, talking about the night he backed up Chuck Berry in New Jersey.
Another section included in this four-disc extravaganza features Robbie Robertson interviewing Berry about his historic scrapbook.
Arguably, among the deepest parts of the film are those surrounding the late piano player, Johnny Johnson, one of the primal influences on rock music, not only for keyboardists, but for guitarists, as well. When Berry first had started performing live, it was in Johnny’s band, which, as the film explains, Berry would later take over. When Richards ultimately came upon the keyboardist many years later, Johnson was no longer performing, he was driving a bus. The Stones guitarist enlisted Johnson into the house band for the film, and years later, he would induct him into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and there would be other forms of tribute. Hackford describes Johnson as the “direct tie to the original sound” of rock ‘n’ roll.
Despite Berry’s self-inflicted isolation, Hackford does a fine job trailing the guitarist’s life from his humble beginnings, through his days at the Cosmo Club, to where he virtually lived on the road in 1986. Other subplots unravel, as the film’s producer, Stephanie Bennett, tries to decipher the reasons behind the dysfunctional manner in which Berry interacted with people on the set, keying the audience into some of the difficulties working with Berry while filming the movie. Much detail is given surrounding the fact that despite his having signed a contractual agreement prior to the film going into production, Berry continuously and arbitrarily insisted on changing the terms of the contract, literally rewriting his contract every day. Those who view the film will wince more than once while listening to a few of the many tales about Berry, warts and all.
The controversies are somehow become easily forgotten, however, while watching rare footage of Berry playing ballads. The movie is captivating viewing throughout, even as Berry’s dirty and empty guitar-shaped swimming pool plays like a bizarre metaphor at the end of the film.
PHYLLIS POLLACK lives in Los Angeles where she is a publicist and music journalist. She can be reached through her blog.