Did you know a rock legend was in school once, majoring in hair dressing? Judge Ryan Keefer, riding along in his automobile, will tell you it's true.
The whole world knows the music. Nobody knows the man.
Chuck Berry is one of the most underappreciated musicians in rock music. Ever. His music has inspired some of history's greatest musicians. Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and John Lennon have all played a Chuck Berry record at one time or another before becoming musicians and each said to themselves "That's who I want to be and what I want to do." The songs are legendary cornerstones of music: "Johnny B. Goode," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," and "Roll Over Beethoven."
But Chuck Berry was also one in an unfortunate group of black musicians whose music was lifted for more popular (read: marketable) crowds of musicians with white singers and guitar players up front. Chuck had grown distrustful of this through the years, but fan (and Ray director) Taylor Hackford felt that Chuck should be given a proper birthday party, so Richards was brought in to set up an all-star house band (a music oxymoron) to celebrate Chuck's 60th birthday in 1985 at a St. Louis music hall. And it was in that event that Hail! Hail! was born.
Like the event, Hackford's documentary was meant to be a celebration, but during the production, Berry was very confrontational with almost everyone he came in contact with. Some of those confrontations appear on camera (showing the guitarist for The Rolling Stones how to hold a guitar note introduction on "Carol" was the tamest one), others are discussed. But they lend credence to the belief that Berry has been burned in the past by so-called friends or business colleagues, and he keeps everyone at arm's length. He travels to shows on his own, carrying a suitcase (his guitar is checked into baggage, go figure), flies to a town, plays with a local band arranged for by the promoter in town, plays, and leaves. He's all about business. But his business is entertaining people, and he's still doing it today, just past his 80th year of life on this Earth.
So not only did Image Entertainment provide a new widescreen transfer for the film (which, thanks to Hackford, looks as good now as it did when I was watching it on cable numerous times in the late '80s and early '90s), they sprung for 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS mixes. The sound mixing on both is phenomenal, and on the DTS mix, the rehearsal footage really puts you in the room as Berry sets Richards straight on "Carol." And how weird is it to see the guitarist for the Rolling Stones get talked to like he's a novice who's only learned two guitar chords? The performances all sound good as Berry, Richards, Clapton, Robert Cray, Linda Ronstadt, and Lennon's son Julian all lend their hands (and voices) to Berry's greatest hits.
Image has released this film on separate two- and four-disc editions. Aside from a new filmed introduction by Hackford, the only other extra on the first disc is the film's trailer. On disc two, the extras are new rehearsal footage with Berry, Richards, Clapton, and others. One of the songs, which is essentially a jam with Berry, Richards, and Clapton, can be viewed from various angles, using your trusty remote control. Oh, and all of the rehearsal footage has the DTS option available. It also has introductions to each song/jam by Hackford (and band drummer Steve Jordan) about how the artists came together, along with some anecdotes on meeting some people (Berry's longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson was found in St. Louis driving a bus). Jordan also discusses some of the dynamics in Berry's music. All the songs look and sound fantastic, with the first piece of the footage being a jam with the guitarists, done in a multi-angle presentation where all angles can be viewed simultaneously. To see these historic names in rock getting together on the same page (so to speak) is really fun to watch, especially when they pull together a great jam or song. The other feature on disc two is a documentary entitled "The Reluctant Movie Star," which is a look at the making of the film. Introduced by Hackford, he lays down the groundwork for the piece, and has interviews with the crew members as they discuss the conflicts that Berry had with them. Hackford specifically states that the piece isn't meant to denigrate Berry, only to present a more well-rounded picture of a complex individual. The recollections of getting the project together and a director are talked about, along with an instance where Berry wrecked a woman's car en route to a location shoot, driving a Winnebago. Berry left the film crew on a location scout at one of the prisons where Berry served time. Berry calls Hackford on an East St. Louis payphone at sunrise on a Saturday morning to demand cash or to remove himself from the project (and Hackford gets on camera and says this, presumably to cover himself with the studio). This would happen on an almost daily basis during the shoot. Chuck disappeared to do a show in Ohio during the production, Hackford went with him, and on one gig, Berry blew his voice out, perilously close to the birthday show. This is a really good look at the film's production and is thankfully included on the two disc edition as a worthy companion piece.
But wait, there's more! Disc three starts with a piece called "Witnesses to History," and features recollection footage from Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard. Shot at the time of the film, all three of these guys recollect about trying to get famous in segregated America. These three greats haven't really sat down before, so to see them talk about their careers and legacy is fascinating. At about an hour in length, the footage is mostly uncut, Hackford just starts them by asking a question and they go from there. It's a loose informal history on the origins of rock music that's fun to watch at times, and watching them discuss matter of factly how they were abused and in some cases assaulted for playing their music is engrossing. The second extra is "The Burnt Scrapbook," where Berry and The Band frontman Robbie Robertson (The Last Waltz) discuss Berry's memories of growing up from an auto body shop floor sweeper into a music superstar while looking through the yellowed pages of a scrapbook. Berry still talks about experiences that still sting him, like his first (and only) manager who he caught skimming from Berry. Chuck drops his guard a little and you can make a case that as much about Berry can be gleaned from watching this half hour look than during the film itself. Disc three wraps up with Berry's unique notable quotables, sometimes set to acoustic guitar played by Robertson.
Disc four only has one extra, but it's a big one. There's a second part to the "Witnesses to History" that appeared on disc three, but this is more on a higher level and is more detailed and exhaustive, with interviews from just about every surviving rock originator at the time of filming. Featuring interviews with Diddley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Dixon, and the Everly Brothers (all of whom already appear in the film), along with Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun and Sun Records chief Sam Phillips, some of the footage does appear in the final cut, but the stuff that didn't is just as good. The overall theme of the footage was what these individuals remember about music at the time along with what they thought about Berry. But that doesn't mean that they aren't without their own moments. Lewis' jokes about his pre-teen marriage are too funny. He's got a ton of great things to say, and you can see the charisma from the man in his '50s heyday translate into interviews in the '80s. Things wind up with some final words from Hackford, who's made it clear by this point that this is a personal work for him, and he pulled out all the stops.
Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll is the best non-Criterion musical performance DVD set that has been released since audio and video formats met digital disc. There's a ton of material here that is just as good (and maybe better) than the film itself, and the Collector's Edition is a history lesson on the origins of rock music (along with an appreciation for one of the greats), one worthy of viewing by any music enthusiast.
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