Chuck Berry was the father of Rock N Roll. His early hits “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Johnny B. Goode” are what bands learn early in order to understand the core principles of the genre and have a few sure fire crowd pleasing covers. The biggest acts of the ’60s either performed covers of Chuck or got sued by Chuck for plagiarism. Both the Beatles and the Beach Boys got nailed for ripping off Chuck’s music. In 1987, director Taylor Hackford’s Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll explores the musical icon with his unique approach. Instead of just being a usual musical biography, the film revolves around an all-star concert in his hometown of St. Louis that the viewer realizes is unique in Chuck’s career for several reasons.
Back in 2008, I finally saw Chuck Berry play an outdoor gig in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. A pal working the show told me how Chuck doesn’t tour in the same way as most oldie acts. He’s not riding around the country on a bus with his backing band and followed by a truck with all his sound equipment. The promoter has to provide a backing band that know Chuck Berry’s greatest hits. Chuck doesn’t even show up with a guitar speaker and pedals. Nope, he flies into town on his own, rents a car, shows up at the venue with his guitar, gets paid in cash, takes the stage without really consulting with his backing band for the night, plays his set list, walks off the stage with his cash, gets in the rental car and flies home that night if possible. The story was that if Chuck liked the backing band, he paid them. And if he didn’t like them, they got to tell their family that they once played with Chuck Berry. He was pretty tight with his cash. A decade ago, I wasn’t sure how long Chuck had been doing this. Turns out he’s been doing this since the ’60s. At the core of Hail! Hail! is how Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones wants for these special shows to not merely have a great band backing Chuck, but he wants them to rehearse. Richards points out that he’s seen Chuck several times over the years, but the shows have stunk since Chuck doesn’t really care about performances. He’s about showing up and getting paid. He’s the anti-James Brown. Keith formulates a proper band for Chuck that includes Chuck Leavell (The Allman Brothers & The Rolling Stones) on organ, Joey Spampinato (NRBQ) on bass guitar, Steve Jordan (David Letterman’s World’s Most Dangerous Band) on drums, Bobby Keys (The Rolling Stones) on tenor saxophone and Ingrid Berry on backing vocals. More importantly Keith reunites Berry with Johnnie Johnson on the piano. On top of the band, there’s quite a few guest performers including Linda Rondstadt, Robert Cray, Julian Lennon, Etta James and Eric Clapton. This wasn’t just the usual Chuck Berry show.
There’s a lot of famous folks sharing their memories of Chuck. Little Richard and Bo Diddley recall their early years and dealing with shady record company contracts. Little Richard has choice words of Pat Boone covering his tunes. Jerry Lee Lewis seems happy to point out his own mother knew who was the real father of rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen describes the night in the early ’70s when his E Street Band after being the opening act to stick around at concert so they could be Chuck Berry’s backing band. He remembers everything about the night and he figures Chuck has no memory of the gig.
The biggest issue of doing a musical documentary is that you’re completely at the mercy of your subject. If they think you’re going to make them look bad, they can easily pull the music and performance rights. Then you’re stuck with a dead documentary. Taylor Hackford tries to get a full view of Berry’s life. He does ask Chuck about his arrest record and Chuck shuts him down quick. There’s an amazing sly moment when Keith Richards points out that Johnnie Johnson contributed a lot to the music of Chuck Berry although Johnson would never share in the songwriting. Several years later, Johnson would finally sue for credit only to have the case rejected since he’d waited too long. If you look online, you’ll discover that besides numerous busts, Chuck Berry after the filming of the movie would get busted for various videos that made him the Father of R. Kelly tapes.
The movie is ultimately about the music of Chuck Berry. The performance at the Fox Theater is a success. This might be the only great gig Chuck performed in the last 50 years of his life. For once Berry and his backing band have an understanding of what do. There’s a real guitar tech to make sure his guitars are in tune. Keith Richards delivers on his dream to finally create the Chuck Berry show that he always wanted to see. Although he didn’t get to truly enjoy the show until he sat back and watched Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the glow on the stage for the big show. The audio is 5.1 DTS-HD MA to get the concert sound all around the room. There’s also the original stereo mix on the 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The movie is subtitled.
2006 DVD Taylor Hackford Introduction To Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll (3:58) lets the director explain how the show came together. He speaks about how the film has a bit of tension for Hackford and his crew kept fearing Chuck would shut them down before the film was over.
Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll Concert Rehearsals (53:34) takes us in the middle of the rehearsals when Keith was putting together the show. The most telling moment is when Eric Clapton says that there were no black people in England when he was a kid. This is very telling if you see the recent Eric Clapton documentary that reminds us of his racist rant back in the ’70s to make England white again.
The Reluctant Movie Star – The Making Of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll (66:27) is the producers and the crew sharing the strange stories of working with Chuck. The producers discuss how difficult it was to find a director that Chuck was willing to work with. Hackford’s love of music was what allowed Chuck to feel good about the director. Hackford wanted to do more than film a concert.
Witnesses To History #1 – Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry (58:17) is more footage of them sitting around the piano. This is a fine talk about the legends discussing what they went through having to break through in the ’50s.
Witnesses To History #2 – Taylor Hackford Intro, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Dixon, Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun are longer interviews.
“Chuckisms” (17:38) are various things Chuck said during interviews including “a washboard of time passing.”
The Burnt Scrapbook (30:43) has Robbie Robertson (The Band) and Chuck Berry sit down and look at a book covering Chuck’s career. While the footage wasn’t used in the film, it’s a fine short film by itself. Robertson brings a lot out of Chuck.
Theatrical Trailer (2:51) promises a show and a chance to get insight on Chuck Berry off stage.
Taylor Hackford’s Final Words (2:08) has the director talk about being able to bring together Chuck Berry and Johnnie Johnson for one last time.
Johnny B. Bad: Chuck Berry and the Making of Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll is a book by Stephanie Bennett about the production that’s a bonus if you order directly from Shoutfactory.com.
Shout Factory presents Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll. Directed by: Taylor Hackford. Starring: Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Little Richard and Linda Rondstadt. Rated: PG. Running Time: 120 minutes. Released: November 19, 2019.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.