Monday, November 12, 2007

DVD Review - Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll

At some point when I was a teenager, I went backwards from my comfort zone of 60s and 70s music to check out the founders of rock and roll. I guess it was because I was such a Beatles and Stones fan and I knew that their big influences were 50s rockers like Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, etc.

I mean, I loved The Beatles' version of Rock and Roll Music and The Stones' version of Carol, so why not check out the originals?

Even though my knowledge and appreciation of that music genre was pretty limited, I fell in love with the movie Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll when it came out in the late 80s.

This was the movie that chronicled Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday gig in St. Louis and how Keith Richards put together an all-star band to help him do the thing right. I was captivated by these two generations of legends stuck together on the same project, chronicled warts and all in the movie. I also really liked Chuck Berry as a personality.

So imagine my pyched-ness when I got the four DVD re-issue of the movie. Yep, four DVDs. That’s one movie and three discs of bonus features.

The movie itself is fantastic. I am not even going to review it here beyond pointing out that when I first saw it, I was proud (as a musician) to be part of something started out of such passion, challenge and perseverance. Despite the oddity and enigma that is Chuck Berry, here is a guy who had a vision and made it happen despite severe challenges (mostly race-related). Talk about an uphill battle.

The movie chronicles Chuck’s career but in the context of the whole rigmarole of getting this gig together despite Chuck’s apparent attempts to sabotage it and create problems for everyone!

My favorite part of the film is Keith Richards holding himself back from smashing Chuck’s face as Chuck keeps telling him he’s playing the guitar part wrong on Carol, a song the Stones did way back in the mid-60s! That and when Chuck in the middle of a song in the 60th birthday gig comes up to Keith announcing he’s going to change the key next verse and Keith says ‘no’ with a face that only a zombie could love. I could watch that movie every week…

But where this package shines is in the bonus material.

On the first of three bonus discs, we get a boatload of behind the scenes rehearsal footage.

For a musician who has been in more rehearsals than he cares to remember, I think one of my favorite things is to watch other people rehearse to see what the vibe is, and how they go about doing it. That is why I liked Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster so much. The movie was about them trying to write and record an album in the midst of total personal hell and it was fascinating. And you got to see them play a lot.

This bonus disc has 45 minutes of rehearsal footage, inter-spliced with really insightful commentary by the director and some of the musicians. We see Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton having a jam with Chuck being the total ringleader. We see Chuck go through some old standards, quiet and pensive, playing on his own until he picks it up a bit and pianist Johnnie Johnson joins in.

Actually, one of my favorite parts is watching Johnnie Johnson. My GOD what a great piano player he was! This guy co-created the genre with Chuck. No doubt about it. Without Johnnie Johnson, Chuck’s stuff would not be nearly as compelling and driving. And they found Johnnie Johnson driving a BUS in St. Louis before he got this gig. His return to fame here is beautiful justice, captured on film.

The other part of this bonus disc is an hour documentary about making the film. By the end, you get the message that the producers came to really despise Chuck. Basically, because he had been ripped off so thoroughly over the course of his career, Chuck tries to wring money out of everyone at every chance possible. This led to him re-negotiating his contract every day of shooting, and not showing up until he received large sums of cash, basically extorting the producers as they tried to make a movie about him.

My favorite bit of this is when he takes off to do a gig at a state fair after springing it on the crew last minute. They tag along and film him in the airport and at the gig. Very cool footage of how Chuck operates. And then due to this side gig, he has no voice for his birthday gig – the cornerstone of the movie. He later has to come to LA to overdub his vocals to the movie, for which he charges the producers yet another sum of cash!

On the second bonus disc, we get a first-hand look into why Chuck is so jaded about money and the man. This disc has Chuck, Little Richard and Bo Diddley sitting around a piano, talking for an hour about how they founded rock and roll, and the racism and rip off’s they had to persevere through.

It’s a hell of a glimpse into history of not only rock and roll, but race relations. The very valid point is made that rock and roll helped break down the barriers between black and white because the kids back then gave less of a shit about black or white. It was the older generation that tried to keep enforcing the color line. And DESPITE that, these young kids (Berry and co.)with everything to lose persevered. I totally take that for granted now but these guys are veritable heroes in terms of race relations.

The third disc also has very cool gab session between Robbie Robertson and Chuck as they go through Chuck’s scrapbook of photos, ticket stubs, posters etc. At first Chuck seems pretty guarded but Robbie is such a cool dude, he has Chuck yapping away in no time. We learn all sorts of stuff, such as about why he’d play first on the bill instead of headlining and who were his musical influences.

We also learn that when Chuck was in prison for three years as a teenager, he found solace in poetry. The last bonus bit on disc 3, called “Chuckisms” has Berry reciting, from memory, wads and wads of poems. Not four lines here and there, but more than five minutes of straight from memory poetry, over Robertson strumming slow chords on an acoustic. Chuck’s face is alight as he rakes these lines from his brain. It’s totally captivating and I found myself thinking again, this guy is an enigma.

This poetry stuff is the missing piece as to where Chuck’s lyrics came from. Check out the lyrics to a 50s era Chuck Berry song. No one told stories like this in rock and roll music back then. It was all about “Whomp Bomp a LuLa” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Chuck’s stuff is downright intellectual! How did he sneak that past everyone? Amazing.

Disc four has more than 3 hours of interviews with many of rocks other founding members that were edited down for the movie - Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison etc. The Jerry Lee Lewis interview is worth the price of the box set alone…

Anyone with 10 free hours (maybe a band on a tour in a bus?) should pore over this four-disc set and see where rock and roll really came from. The rest of us can hit it piece by piece in all of our free time (ha), but it’s worth it.

1 comment:

Dr. John said...

Anyone with any knowledge of history knows that Chuck Berry ripped off his ideas from Marty McFly, the guitarist from the future... :-)

Seriously, sounds like a good DVD to watch. Not sure if I could deal with watching all the egos, but the music sounds awesome.