Rock Docs: Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll - Reviewed

Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll opens with an old black and white clip of John Lennon approaching a microphone. “If you tried to give rock and roll another name,” Lennon says, “you might call it Chuck Berry.” The infancy of Rock n Roll was full of heavy hitters. Elvis had the voice, style, and pizzaz. Buddy Holly was an incredibly gifted songwriter and performer. But Chuck Berry was a tour de force.  Berry wrote and sang his own original songs, and to top it off, he played lead guitar like no one else. Simply put, he did it all. His style would directly influence the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, who would each include covers of Berry’s tunes on their early albums. In a copy cat era where bands followed suit with each new dance craze, Berry was a trailblazer. Unfortunately, during his rise to fame, he wasn't given the proper credit and recognition he deserved.

While clean cut white bands were fast becoming rock n roll pioneers on the Ed Sullivan show, Berry suffered from the racism many black performers experienced in the ‘50s. He played "colored music" and his records were kept in the "colored" section, which was normally an unorganized stack located in the back corner of a record shop. White owned radio stations would play Berry’s songs, except they were covered by pretty clean cut white performers. The predigest lead Berry to change his songwriting approach, forcing him to focus on writing lyrics he hoped would appeal to white listeners. It lead to a frustrating beginning of what would eventually become a career that has span more than 60 years. His music would even transcend to the big screen, providing several memorable moments in film. It’s hard to imagine Vincent Vega and Mia Wallace dancing to anything other than Berry’s song “Never Can Tell” in Pulp Fiction. And who can forget Marty McFly doing his best Berry impersonation while performing “Johnnie B. Goode” in Back To The Future. Directed by Taylor Hackford in 1986 to commemorate Berry’s 60th birthday, Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll is a fascinating look at Berry’s rise to fame, and his influence across several generations and genres of music.

On screen Chuck Berry is a charming individual with an impeccable  memory. The man can recount with ease how many studio takes it took to record his first single Maybellene, what day he recorded Johnny B. Goode, or how old he was when he and his father were turned away from the Fox Theater in Minnesota for the color of their skin when they tried to see A Tale of Two Cities. One thing is clear early on in this film, Chuck Berry has remembered every dime he has ever made. He’s a man constantly concerned with the next dollar. While comical at times, there is an element of sadness in his over concern of his finances; a paranoia fueled by years of crooked contracts and stolen royalties.

Hail! Hail! features several musical guests, an impressive line up of talent all inspired by Berry. When offered the job, Keith Richards jumped at the chance to be musical director for the concert, ironically staged at the same The Fox Theater that had turned he and his father away decades earlier. Richards’s commitment to this project is touching. His insight and dedication reveals a fan first appreciation. The Rolling Stone guitarist seems perfectly comfortable taking a back seat from the spot light and letting Berry have his due. The two icons often butt heads in the film, giving viewers an authentic look at the mechanics of a band while Berry and Richards argue over amp settings and chord formations.

Hail! Hail!’s impressive lineup captures many musicians coming into their prime, including Eric Clapton, Etta James, and Linda Ronstadt. The lead up to the concert spends a good amount of time at Berry Park, a 35 acre compound where Berry lives. Besides Berry’s 17,000 square foot mansion, the estate houses several guest cottages, a nightclub concert hall, and a guitar shaped swimming pool. The rehearsal footage at the nightclub features several amazing jam sessions. Many are spontaneous collaborations with Richards, Berry, and Clapton trading off impromptu guitar solos.

Despite all the amazing performances, it is Berry’s uncharacteristically quiet performances of several big band standards that stand out. He recounts growing up during the big band jazz movement, and praises the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, and Nat King Cole. He credits these musicians, with their classic jazz jive and boogie woogie rhythms as the inspiration for his trademark rock n roll sound. It’s an interesting side to Berry, who to his credit, made a career of writing and performing original music. To see him cover these songs with such affection is one of the many highlights of this documentary film.

The actual concert itself is a joy to watch. Taking up half the film’s running time, it’s nice to see Berry front and center. Keith Richards leads the backing band, accompanied by Steve Jordan on drums, Robert Cray on rhythm guitar, and Johnnie Johnson on piano. Berry is at his saucy finest, catering to the audience with his flashy stage attitude. The performance reinforces Berry’s talent as he plays original hit after original hit. With a packed theater of fans, and an impressive line up of musical guests, Berry finally get his due and once and for all solidifies himself at the true King of Rock n’ Roll.

Movie Score

The Reluctant Movie Star - The Bizarre Tale of Making Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll

While the Documentary Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll celebrates Chuck Berry, in many ways The Reluctant Movie Star does the opposite. Using production diary footage, and interviews with the filmmakers and musicians, it brings to light a nightmarish experience. Berry proved to be an uncooperative handful on set, at least when he decided to show up. Many of the tales shared during production are unfathomable, even for 1980s standards. One moment in particular occurred in a prison and resulted in several women being groping by a mob of prisoners after Berry disappears from production. The incident occurred during a location scout for the film. Afterwards, Berry spontaneously performs a concert for the inmates. Sadly there are only a few photographs of the performance. Interesting to note, there was actual footage of Berry’s impromptu concert. Unfortunately the footage was shot using Berry’s VHS camera, which he confiscated after the concert and never returned the tapes to the production team. Berry constantly sabotaged his own film, of which he was also a producer. He rewrote his contract several times, and squeezed every dime possible from production.

Put together for the DVD release in 2006, The Reluctant Movie Star is an outrageous account of events and recollections that are so bizarre it’s hard to even comprehend they actually could have occurred. Also, the mysterious details of Berry’s three separate prison terms are explained, which were only briefly hinted at in the Hail! documentary. The more details exposed, the more evident it becomes that Berry’s worst enemy has always been himself. The making of feature is very loose, piecing together tales and events that give viewers a glimpse of the man behind the guitar. While comical at times, it is also a disappointing revelation. It’s sad that Berry took such advantage of an event that was created for his own benefit. Nevertheless, it is an important companion to the feature film, enlighten a completely different side to the story. In fact, it is so shocking, it shows just how much reserve the production used in putting together the concert film. They kept true to their original intention to celebrate Berry and give him his proper day in the spotlight.

Bonus doc: 10/10

Bonus material - Unused Rehearsals and Musician Interviews

The unused rehearsal footage in the bonus features is a music lovers dream. Clapton and Richards continue to trade licks, giving the audience a look at two guitarists coming into their prime. One memorable jam features each musician feeling each other out during a long blues jam. After trading off several solos Berry takes the stage and busts out some spontaneous lyrics. Another memorable jam features Etta James’s amazing performance of Hoochie Coochie Gal, a female perspective cover of the classic Muddy Waters song.

The bonus material includes more of Berry’s recollections on the music of his youth. While quietly strumming his guitar, long time pianist companion Johnnie Johnson does what he does best on the keys. Johnson is hands down the heart and soul of every song performed, and it’s nice to see him in the spotlight on this film. In this bonus feature, Berry plays a melody of love lost big band standards made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The performance is so intimate and beautiful, even after all the antics displayed in The Reluctant Movie Star, the man is hard not to like. Overall, after the final performance, the good outweighs the bad - at least the bad committed 1986 and before. Yet it leaves viewers with the sad revelation that for all the talent Berry possesses, it could have been so much more.  

Bonus Materials: 10/10

Share this lovely review!
-Lee L. Lind