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Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll

There probably will never be a satisfactory answer to what was the "first" rock 'n' roll record — in 1954, Bill Haley warped rhythm-and-blues basics into "Rock Around the Clock" while Elvis Presley wrenched his legendary version of "That's Alright Mama" from a twangy country standard. However, even if Chuck Berry didn't invent rock 'n' roll, he was the first musician to perfect it. Brought up in a black middle-class suburb of St. Louis, Berry took to music at a young age and soon discovered that he could make good money playing guitar with R&B outfits in local nightclubs. Finding early success with the Johnny Johnson Trio (later the Chuck Berry Trio) at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Berry quickly worked up his surefire rock 'n' roll formula with a series of songs built around a few chords, all set to high-energy twelve-bar blues with a driving rhythm section and "ask-answer" structures that highlighted both his clever lyrics and signature sound — piercing solo riffs on a Gibson hollow body telling the world that Chuck Berry music is happening right now. Thanks to a string of hits in the '50s, starting with his 1955 release of "Maybelline," Berry became the rock era's first singer-songwriter, as well as the genre's Johnny Appleseed for an entire generation to follow — indeed, Berry likely made as much money from covers by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys as he did from his own recordings. And all because — unlike rebellious white boys Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis — he wanted to make "nice music" for teenagers, thus defining the few staples of any classic rock song: school, cars, girls, and rock 'n' roll itself.

While it was shot in just five days, 1987's Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll ranks as one of the most ambitious documentaries ever made about popular music, mostly because it involved gaining the cooperation of the famously difficult, usually secretive, and sometimes combative Chuck Berry himself. The project originally began with British producer Stephanie Bennett, who wanted to film Berry in concert at St. Louis's opulent Fox Theater to commemorate his 60th birthday. After she earned both Berry's support (he signed on as a producer) and backing from Universal, Taylor Hackford was selected as the director, in part because Berry didn't like any of veteran helmers he met. Hackford then recruited Keith Richards to act as the film's musical director, who proceeded to form a band that included guitarist Robert Cray and Berry's longtime pianist Johnny Johnson. While the problems that plagued the one-week shoot have since become minor legend (covered elsewhere on this DVD release), Hackford did manage to capture a lot of valuable material, including following Berry on a one-night stand to the Ohio State Fair and filming the all-star lineup in rehearsal. Richards states that he agreed to do the film because, in part, he had been consistently disappointed with Berry's live gigs over the years, which invariably featured local bar-bands as the rhythm section. Nonetheless, Keith nearly loses his cool while trying to master a classic riff under the eyes of the master, proving that backing up Chuck Berry and headlining the show are two very different things.

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Chuck Berry's one-night stands have become as much a part of his folklore as Cadillac cars and teenage monkey business — in a filmed anecdote, Bruce Springsteen reveals that he's one of probably a few thousand aspiring rock 'n' rollers who played the contractual one hour of greatest hits behind the legend, who rarely speaks to his local players and leaves venues moments after his shows end, having secured payment up front, in cash. "What songs are we gonna do?" Springsteen recalls asking Berry just before the show started. "We're gonna do some Chuck Berry songs," was all he heard as Berry plugged in his Gibson and launched his opening salvo, catching the band unawares. These contradictions — Berry's on-stage charisma and sheer talent, combined with his dogged professionalism and eye on the bottom line — became the objects that Taylor Hackford and Keith Richards attempt to chip away at in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. Berry reveals himself to have a head for facts and figures, and especially money. He also is unwilling to discuss his time behind bars, and he canceled a planned gig at the Algoa State Prison that Hackford expected to shoot. But once on stage at the Fox Theater, it's impossible to deny not just Chuck Berry's cultural impact, but his ability to entertain a crowd — the riffs, the lyrics, and the sheer showmanship are why he hasn't needed to release a studio album since 1979, and it makes the guest performances by Eric Clapton, Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, and Julian Lennon more a tribute to the man than a contribution to his art. Chuck Berry is the show, and Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll isn't so much a movie as it is a historical document that people will watch as long as they wonder how rock 'n' roll began.

Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll makes its DVD debut in 2006 from Image Entertainment in a two-disc set with a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and audio in DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and the original Dolby 2.0 Surround — the restored source-print and new digital audio offers a superior presentation compared to the film's 1987 theatrical release. Extras on Disc One include an introduction by director Taylor Hackford (4 min.) and the theatrical trailer. Bonus features on Disc Two include five rehearsals outtakes and "The Reluctant Movie Star: The Bizarre Tales of the Making of Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll" (70 min.). A four-disc "Ultimate Collector's Edition" includes two extra platters with "Witnesses to History: Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry" (58 min.), "The Burnt Scrapbook: Robbie Robertson and Chuck Berry's Scrapbook" (30 min.), "Chuckisms" (17 min.), and nine additional "Witnesses to History" featuring several of Berry's musical contemporaries.
—JJB



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