Chuck Berry - Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll
Image // PG // $49.99 // June 27, 2006
Review by Louis Howard | posted May 19, 2006
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The life and music of rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry is the subject of this documentary, with the intent of giving the viewer a first hand look at not only the performer but the man himself. This film also serves as a celebration of Berry's 60th birthday, with none other than the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards serving as musical director bringing in a stellar band to play with Chuck at the lovely Fox Theatre in St. Louis. Backing Chuck as well as taking lead vocals on some of his songs are Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, Julian Lennon,Chuck Lavell and Johnnie Johnson, the wonderful piano player with whom Berry got his start as part of the "Johnnie Johnson Trio".

Directed by Oscar winner Taylor Hackford, this documentary succeeds on a number of levels. Interviews from fellow rock legends are interspersed throughout the film- we get an opportunity to hear stories as well as praise on Berry given by Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Bo Diddley, The Everly Bros, Willy Dixon, Bruce Springsteen as well as the backing band members for the birthday bash. Also on hand to reminisce are luminaries such as Sam Philips from Sun Records and his old band member from the beginning, Johnnie Johnson, coming across as humble and nothing but complimentary of the man who joined his band then changed its name to "The Chuck Berry Trio". The viewer is taken from a landmark venue in Berry's career, The Cosmopolitan Club; on to sit in on a small club performance (with a far less notable backing band and a somewhat workmanlike performance from Berry), Chuck travelling alone through airports for one nighter after one nighter. Chuck takes us on a tour of his own Berry Park in Missouri, intended to be a major commercial moneymaker when Berry undertook the project but by the 80's a deteriorating series of haphazard old structures. He walks us through the grand old Fox Theatre and talks about his childhood days when segregation kept him from getting in the door, to the present day, Berry now the establishments' headliner.

This movie also works incredibly well as a filmed concert performance. The show we see at the Fox justifies the diligent practice that Richards hounded Berry to endure; his guitar work is vintage Chuck,the voice is sharp, his movements are animated and saucy- it is mentioned earlier in the film that "he hadn't lost a thing" after all his years of playing, and this 60 year old rendition of Berry seems more than capable of delivering a performance on a par with a man half his age, giving the crowd signature Berry acrobatics such as the duck walk and the leg split. The band behind him settles in and gives their star the kind of support a legend deserves; one can only wonder how many more hits, how much harger than life Berry could have become in his later career with talent equal to his own in support of him. This is his moment in the spotlight, and Berry the consummate old pro seems able to deliver effortlessly. There are a few instances where he reverts to a bit of lazy musicianship, but for the most part the opposite is the case and he delivers the goods. The concert is a trifle on the hit and miss side, as several guest singers are brought on stage to take care of lead vocals. At times, it works; Ronstadt doing "Living In The USA" is inspired, as she had previously covered the song and made it a hit of her own. A few others, such as Julian Lennon singing "Johnny B. Goode" fall short. When Berry himself is taking care of business on center stage, he truly shines.

In the film Richards makes no secret of the fact that Chuck Berry is a difficult musician to work with, and a newly-filmed-for DVD introduction by film director Hackford emphasizes this point as well. Berry marches to the beat of his own drum; he expects others to cater to and adjust for him in regards to what he decides to do, especially on stage musically. While this is obviously a sore point at times for others, it isn't so hard to understand; when Chuck was starting out during the most successful years, he was doing alot of adjusting to a newly born, ever changing business himself. Being one of the true pioneers of the rock and roll market, it isn't a stretch to imagine that Berry went through any number of less than ideal situations in order to simply succeed. If at times Berry comes across as a businessman rather than an artist, that can be attributed in part to the era from which he came- the fifties were years in which artists the likes of Berry were expected to tour on a seemingly constant basis and crank out album after album. One need only have a look at some of the Berry Park rehearsal footage to be given a different impression of the man; Berry gives heartfelt takes on some lovely old 40's crooning standards that give some insight into how subtle he can be when practicing his craft as well as how gifted a musician he is. The man may be in it for the money, but he appreciates what he does for a living.

Richards' biggest beef with Berry here is his musicianship- his guitar playing as well as his vocals at times are sloppy, far away from the original recordings from the 50's with a feeling that Chuck has been 'mailing in' his stage shows for years. Keith dilligently tries to correct that- prodding Chuck to play in the proper key, hit the right notes, give a performance worthy of the performer and the classic material they are playing. For the most part he succeeds admirably; the 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theatre sounds like Berry close to his best, especially in comparison to the pedestrian performance Chuck gives at the Cosmo in the beginning of the film. There are a few scenes over the course of both the documentary and outtake material in which the strain of dealing with Berry-and the fact that Chuck can be a bit of a prima donna- is obvious. Even so, this is a man reaching 60 years of age who has done things his own way- the Chuck Berry way- both on stage and off for decade after decade. Any misgivings about Chuck Berry the man more than balance out when one sees him in so many instances as personable, hard working, wonderfully gifted, and giving the band around him praise. Richards makes a telling statement at the end of the film; "He gives me more headaches than Mick Jagger, but I can't dislike him-I love him."

Over the course of this set the viewer will be given a number of opportunities to understand why Berry is such a cornerstone in rock and roll. In the film he is charismatic, thoughtful, intelligent, and even at age sixty remains a remarkably agile, athletic performer when he chooses to be. Mentions are made as to where his chief talent lies; though they are many- he is an excellent guiarist and a great singer- above all he is perhaps the consummate rock and roll songwriter. Springsteen talks about Chuck writing songs that bring vibrant life to what he describes in his lyrics, and with bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones covering his early material, it is hard to overlook Berry's incredible songwriting skills.

It seems like most of we who are DVD collectors and aficionados have our own "Holy Grail" titles- movies or features that we anxiously await to see finally make their way to the digital medium. Some have long been out of print, available as VHS only, with a few making a brief appearance on laserdisc then passing back into unavailability. For me Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll has been one of those Holy Grails I've been waiting on for years, so there was some bias on my part writing a review here- caveat emptor, folks.

When I first watched this documentary back in the late eighties during a run on cable I recall it being one that draws the viewer right in to the world of Chuck Berry, giving its audience so many great looks at his persona, his essence, his showmanship, and his incredible talent. Watching it anew almost 20 years later has only validated my original impression from so long ago.

Video-

The aspect ratio here is 1.78:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16x9 televisions. How does it look? At times, stellar. Several hues of color are used in this film, and they are rich, bright and well represented. Blacks are deep and dead on. There is possibly a bit of smearing here and there, but all things considered this presentation has been given new life. Imaging here is sharp; not razor sharp but for most of the documentary far sharper than I had expected out of a piece I hadn't seen for almost two decades. I looked for grain and dirt and in a few scenes a bit is notcible, but for the most part this is one clean print. I can't imagine that this footage has ever looked better, not in the theaters nor on any medium prior to this new release. It makes one curious to see just how much cleaner the eventual migration to an HD format will be, since the groundwork has already been laid for such a treatment.

Audio-

Sound here is good, sometimes very, very good. Audio tracks given here are Dolby Digital stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS track. I did plenty of switching back and forth between the DD 5.1 and DTS tracks and both are quite pleasing; the DTS option seems to add a bit more presence in the LFE area but otherwise they're very close. Between the concert footage and the rehearsals, you're probably going to have as much fun listening to this release as you will watching it.

Extras-

The producers seem to have gone all out with this set. They did a super job with the presentation of the documentary itself, but the film is only a portion of what you're offered here; lots of releases tout their 'extras' these days; this one delivers. To my surprise there is a TON of additional material here. Director Hackford goes to great lengths setting up every extra before showing it, letting the viewer know why it was included in the set and how the footage came about to begin with.

Disc One-

No extras on disc one.

Disc Two-

Rehearsals- narrated by Taylor Hackford with lots of input between takes by Clapton, drummer Steve Jordan and Etta James, this is a compilation of some incredible previously unreleased footage of the 60th Birthday band at Berry Park feeling each other out musically, playing some wonderful songs that weren't in the documentary. Clocking in at almost an hour, this is a wonderful extra. Also worth mentioning is the fact that these rehearsals can be watched from a number of different angles if the viewer wishes to.

Guitar Jam (Entire band)
Mean Old World (band with Berry singing vocals)
Understand Each Other (Clapton and Berry singing vocals)
Hoochie Coochie Gal (the band with Etta James on vocals)
40's Standards Medley- Heart and Soul, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, You Go To My Head, House Of Blue Lights (Chuck singing vocals and playing guitar with Johnnie Johnson on piano)

The Reluctant Movie Star: The Bizarre Tales of the Making Of Hail! Hail! Rock N' Roll-Also coming in at about an hour, this is a bit of an antithesis to the documentary, with Hackford expounding on the downside of working with a sometimes difficult star in Chuck Berry. Lots of footage from various producers and makers of the film telling stories of behind the scenes moments that don't always put Berry in the best light.

Disc Three-

Witnesses To History #1-This piece is an hour in length. For what is the first time, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry simply sit around a piano in silence reminiscing and talking with each other about their beginnings, the early days when they were so instrumental in founding the rock and roll movement. All three are relaxed- (in Little Richard's case, as relaxed as one can expect the verbose, hyperactive performer to be) and this is a lot of fun to watch, all three having mutual admiration for the others and lots of great old stories to tell, stories about record companies, fellow artists and venues from the 50's and how hard it was to get past the color barrier in those days.

The Burnt Scrapbook- At 30 minutes in length this is an intimate little piece with creative consultant Robbie Robertson of The Band and Chuck Berry going through Berry's scrapbook, talking about various pictures within; from there lots of little anecdotes are told by Berry about his early years.

Chuckisms- a word coined by Hackford, these are a series of snippets listening to the wit and wisdom of Chuck expounding on all manner of things in his life, speaking in a way Hackford lauds as utterly unique. Chuck discusses his carpentry talents, his obvious love for cars and how they are fitted into his music, his songwriting skills so akin to poetry, the time he spent in prison, and a series of lovely poem recitals by Berry with Robbie Robertson sitting by his side playing acoustic guitar. Chuck has an unbelievable memory and superb knack for the spoken word; one can easily imagine Berry's strong, well recognized voice today being put to good use doing narration of all manner. About 10 minutes in length.

Disc Four-

Witnesses To History #2- Hackford did extensive interviews with several rock and roll greats in making his film; Jerry lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Dixon, Ray Orbison, Sam Phillips all give thoughts and insights on Berry and rock music but only a fraction of the material filmed was used in the finished movie. On this disc that wealth of footage is gathered together and each performer's interview is given a more extensive look. It's a bit difficult to figure out just how long these segments total from the time counter on my DVD player but seems to be over 3 hours. Fascinating stuff from some of the true elder statesmen of rock and roll.

Final Thoughts-

Chuck Berry is the founding father of rock and roll. For that reason alone this set is worth checking out for just about any music fan. Knowingly or unknowingly, virtually every rock n' roller that has come along is likely to have incorporated some attribute, some nuance of Berry's style into their own. John Lennon makes the comment at the beginning of this documentary "If rock and roll had another name it would be Chuck Berry." Director Taylor Hackford seems to have worked on this release with a passion seldom seen in the DVD field. Not only did the producers of this set take painstaking care in transferring this film to DVD looking and sounding better than it ever has before, they literally heaped extras atop it, some of which will be worth watching several times over. Some will disagree with my call here, but in my opinion this release is well deserving of the DVD Talk Collector's Series.


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