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Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll
The Ultimate Collector's Edition (4-Disc)

Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll
Image / Universal
1987 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 120 min. / Street Date June 27, 2006 / 49.95
Starring Chuck Berry, Ingrid Berry, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, Don & Phil Everly, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Roy Orbison, Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt, Joey Spampinato, Bruce Springsteen
Cinematography Oliver Stapleton
Concert production designed by Kim Colefax
Film Editor Lisa Day
Music produced by Keith Richards
Produced by Stephanie Bennett, Chuck Berry
Directed by Taylor Hackford

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Film director Taylor Hackford cared a great deal about getting Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll to the screen, as the completed film is perhaps the best rock documentary ever. His subject is the seminal rock icon Chuck Berry, the slippery moving target that in 1987, thirty years into his career, was still active jetting around the country for profitable one-night stands. He rarely gave interviews, didn't like to reminisce about old times and could almost be called unsociable -- blasting into some town for a scheduled concert at the very last minute, collecting his cash up front, barely talking to the pick-up band during the show and then peeling away the moment he left the stage.

Hackford centered his film on Berry, rounded up all of his contemporaries, produced and filmed a giant show in St. Louis and even made the star a producer to elicit his cooperation. Getting Berry to play ball was apparently like pullling teeth, but Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll has plenty of great performances and unscripted "interaction" between Berry and his sometimes frustrated co-workers.

Music fans will be impressed by the hard music content in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Hackford filmed Berry under controlled conditions with top-line talent to provide variety. There's nothing like Berry on stage -- he's professional, controlled and a gentleman. He gives the audience the razor-sharp music and spirited attitude they've come for. Hackford films a half-dozen full numbers with Eric Clapton, Etta James, Julian Lennon, Robert Cray, the Everly Brothers and Linda Ronstadt, all expertly recorded and beautifully covered with multiple cameras. By 1987 the MTV music cutting style had become dominant, but Hackford's editing serves the performances and not a director's storyboard.

Berry is a difficult cat to pin down in the interstitial interview segments. There are at least four kinds of interviews. In one he's "on" and performing, as when he shows us a warehouse with his collection of Cadillacs, which Berry refuses to sell because the dealers wouldn't give him enough money. That highlights a main theme of his personality, an acute awareness of business and money. After his modest beginnings, Berry seems intent on never being cheated or allowing himself to be sold cheaply. The second category is the remnants of failed interviews. Hackford uses every known device to get through Berry's defenses, as even making him a producer (probably so he wouldn't be "cheated" out of any profit from his story) doesn't prompt him to open up on camera. Berry's long-time business manager seems willing to talk, but Berry steps in and shuts down the interview. Hackford makes the mistake of asking a friendly personal question of Berry's wife, and that interview also ends in a big hurry. The film finally strikes pay dirt when Berry sits with his parents, whom he obviously adores. Mother reminds him of some childhood stories and he turns off his defenses, revealing much more of his warmth.

Hackford next teams up Berry with his contemporaries Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Richard goes easy on the hipster overkill and soon engages in a conversation about the problems of black musicians getting into the white-dominated radio world of 1954 and 1955. Berry is not hostile, but he chimes in mostly to talk about being swindled in his first recording contracts. Interestingly, Diddley and Richard end up saying that they owe a lot of their success to white imitators that got the kids hooked on Rock and Roll, and Dick Clark, who insisted on putting black performers on TV. Berry is quick to point out that they couldn't interact with the white teens or be seen dancing or moving, but that TV exposure was all they needed to break into the national radio game.

One of the few times that Berry opens up by himself is when he visits an old dance hall and remembers how he finally decided that he could drop his various day jobs. He's acutely aware that a lot of people have made fortunes from his talent, and isn't particularly happy about it.

Hackford assembles a stellar list of interviewees. Eric Clapton remarks on what Berry means to his generation of British rockers; the film opens with a video clip of John Lennon giddily introducing Berry as a God and shouting Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll! An un-billed Bruce Springsteen tells a great story about playing backup for Chuck Berry at a local club, an experience inter-cut with Hackford's camera following Berry to a similar one-night engagement. Although committed to the feature shoot, Berry walked out to take the gig, forcing Hackford to shut down and follow to get on film what he can. Springsteen explains that when Berry travels, he demands a cash payment up front with a thousand-dollar surcharge. The local promoter is responsible for assembling a backup band to accompany Berry --- with no rehearsal, not even a discussion beforehand. They just have to be able to "play Chuck Berry songs." If the band is good, Berry rebates the $1,000 surcharge to the promoter. Springsteen remembers Berry walking on stage late, telling the band something useless like "good luck" and launching into his songs, while the musicians try to figure out what to do, what key to play in, etc.

This brings us to the most telling material, a set of interviews and behind the scenes coverage with the famous Keith Richards, the film's music producer. Richards took on the job because he thought many of Berry's personal shows were terrible. Berry economized by traveling solo with his guitar but was at the mercy of whatever backup guitarists and drummers showed up to play with him. Although 80% of the show was his guitar licks and energetic presence, back backup made for some awful nights.

Keith Richards gets Berry into a rehearsal session for the big concerts and has nothing but trouble, as the old icon isn't used to discussing his music with anyone. For a while it seems like perfect harmony as he teaches Richards how to get a particular 'Berry sound' into a guitar riff, a great bit of cooperation that anyone can admire. But then Berry starts dragging his feet, saying things like "don't touch my amp" and preventing Richards from orchestrating a superior backup. Berry isn't having any, and the mood heats up. Later in a solo interview, Keith Richards wonders if the effort was all worthwhile but has to admit that he's proud that Berry "never knocked him down." Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll is an intense experience. Taylor Hackford has to work hard, but he brings us a portrait of a very private Rock icon.

Image and Universal's four-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition of Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll is a monster of a set with hours of bonus material spread across three extra discs. The film itself is beautifully transferred, remixed and remastered with a beautiful enhanced widescreen image and great sound in both DTS, 5.1 and 2.0 stereo.

The extras utilize hours of unused interview and rehearsal material that are meant to appeal to the serious vintage Rock fan but also constitute a valuable research resource. Taylor Hackford hosts all of the sections. One full hour is a fully finished and mixed collection of rehearsal footage with Berry and his 'guests' including Richards, Clapton, Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Lavell and Etta James. The Bo Diddley/Little Richard/Chuck Berry joint interview material is presented in a much longer and more complete format. Hackford also hosts a segment dealing with how difficult it was to work with Berry in a filmmaking capacity.

Robbie Robertson puts in an appearance with Berry going through a scrapbook of memories that survived a 1970 office fire. A shorter feature gives us "Chuckisms," a glossary of Berry sayings.

The monster extra is a 3.5-hour assemblage of individual interview material with Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, Rob Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis and several others. That should be enough for anybody.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Chuck Berry and stars rehearsal footage in DTS and 5.1 audio; Witness to History interview featurette with Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry; The Burnt Scrapbook with Chuck Berry and Robbie Robertson; Chuckisms; Witness to History 2 -- 3.5 hours on the birth of rock music with Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and others.
Packaging: Four discs in two keep cases in card box
Reviewed: July 15, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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