Released By: Image Entertainment
Released On: June 27, 2006.
Director: Taylor Hackford
Cast: Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen
When a young man was turned away from St. Louis' Fox Theatre for being the 'wrong colour', it can be assumed that the proprietor would not expect him to walk on to the stage of the same venue many decades later to celebrate his 60th birthday party. But in 1986, this is precisely what happened as Chuck Berry, a full-blown celebrity and rock 'n' roll icon, arrived there to play a concert to a sold-out crowd, the basis of which became Taylor Hackford's film Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll.
Without having been there when 'Maybellene' first blasted out of phonographic speakers in 1955, it's difficult to imagine what that first sonic wave of rock 'n' roll must have felt like. The pioneering talents of Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Chuck himself bore an excitement that the predictable, pre-fab radio fodder of modern culture cannot hope to attain. Fortunately, director Taylor Hackford (Ray) chose not only to showcase Chuck's musical talent in this film, he also decided to take a look at the man and his background as well.
"If you had tried to try and give rock 'n' roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry." This opening quote from John Lennon sums up the feeling of many rock 'n' roll fans, and is an appropriate introduction to the film. Lennon's opinion also surmises the influence that Chuck has had on White youth, such as the individual members of The Beatles. This is a theme that Hackford frequently revisits in his interviews with Chuck and other Black musicians hailing from a then-segregated society. Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and members of Chuck's first band discuss getting started in Caucasian-dominated radio, and the prejudice that they encountered throughout the early years. The performers manage to remain upbeat during the interviews though, and many great stories about the birth or rock 'n' roll are shared.
Hackford also brings us to the modern-day Berry Park, Chuck's estate. Originally conceived as a conservation area and somewhat of a musical resort, the director is not shy in showing that the Park has fallen into a state of disrepair. This is only one example of Taylor's unwillingness to portray Chuck and his circumstances in an unrealistic light. Presented so close to the beginning of the film, it's almost a warning of the ugliness to come; Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll is not just a concert film; it's an unflinching portrait of a complex individual. Interviews with Chuck, his family, and his friends, show that although he can be a wonderful and caring person, he can turn ugly at the drop of a dime. Viewers will occasionally find themselves balking at Chuck's negativity and eccentric behaviour as he appears both poetically eloquent and raucous, but the film maintains integrity through its blatant honesty.
That's not to say that music doesn't abound in the film. Intimate footage of Chuck in a club setting shows that even at sixty years of age, he can still pull out all of the stops and rip into the guitar like a madman- likewise, his staccato lyrics chug alongside the pounding rhythm, creating the locomotive momentum that rock music became famous for. The concert footage at the Fox Theatre achieves the same objective but in a much larger setting. The audience goes mad for Chuck as he duck-walks and jumps around the stage like a jackrabbit, cranking out hit after hit, joined by some of the top names in the music industry. Keith Richards is not only the second guitarist in the band, he's also the musical director of the show, and he plays like it's the most important gig of his life. Video footage of the rehearsals and interviews document Keith and Chuck having more than their fair share of difficulties relating to each other, and the tension adds to the energy of the music. In tribute to his father's respect of Chuck, Julian Lennon makes an appearance (with his rat-tail!) to help out with a fiery version of 'Johnny B. Goode'. Guest appearances by Linda Ronstandt, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Etta James round out a true, musical milestone.
Interspersed throughout the film are interviews from old and new friends and acquaintances such as Keith Richards, Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Each interview segment augments the purpose of the film...to document the importance and influence of the music and the man who is Chuck Berry.
Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The transfer looks great, although motion artifacts do appear occasionally. Some of the interview segments seem to be not up to par with the rest of the film, but overall the transfer is well done. Black levels are consistent during the concert itself and although some of the behind the scenes footage appears to be slightly raw, it adds to the intimacy of the film.
The film contains a whopping three audio tracks...a DTS 5.1, a Dolby Digital 5.1, and the original Dolby 2.0 theatrical mix. All of the mixes sound great, with the surround tracks taking the prize for putting the viewer into the concert segments. The mix is consistent and free of any noise, and the bass frequencies will drive your subwoofer a little harder than it's probably used to.
The four-disc edition of Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Rollcontains enough extras to make your ears bleed. First up, the film has a brand-new Introduction by Taylor Hackford, who talks about what a labour of love the film was for him. He also alludes briefly to the difficulty of working with Chuck, but comments on the overall positive aspects of making the film.Hackford can also be found introducing the majority of the extra features on the supplements discs.
On disc one, the Theatrical Trailer for the film can be found. Assumingly to keep the picture quality as high as possible, the remaining extras can be found spread across discs two through four.
On disc two, the first supplement is Rehearsals. This is approximately 55 minutes, and gives some insight into the rehearsals before the concert. The drummer of the band tells an interesting anecdote of how he was almost passed over for the position, and director Taylor Hackford discusses the formation of the band. The rest of the featurette is made up of rehearsal footage and a multi-angle jam which features a camera on each band member.
Next up is The Reluctant Movie Star. This is a 65-minute piece featuring interviews with a producer and the production manager, as well as a few others involved in the film. The focus, according to the director, is to document the numerous bizarre stories that came from making the film, predominantly centered on Chuck's idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, although a few interesting facts come out, (Bob Rafeaelson, who directed the Monkees' movie Head was almost director), most of the material seems to drag on and will probably not warrant more than one viewing.
Disc three yields some of the more interesting supplements. First off is Witness To History #1. Approximately one hour long, this is the full interview of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley together, of which excerpts were used in the film itself. In the long playing version found here, the three are able to expand on their stories of race politics in the early days of rock, and to include stories of the traveling music shows hosted by the legendary DJ Alan Freed. Little Richard contributes to the historical material by talking about his frustration in seeing Pat Boone cover his big hit 'Tutti-Frutti', the epitome of racism in rock 'n' roll. The three participants play off of each other well, and the featurette is an enjoyable and informative piece.
Next up is The Burnt Scrapbook, which features The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson flipping through Chuck's slightly singed scrapbook that he's kept since starting out. The respect that the men have for each other is evident, and in the half hour allotted here, Robertson elicits some very personal and intimate details from Chuck, accompanied by the scrapbook's unique photographs and memorabilia.
Rounding out Disc Three is Chuckisms, an interesting collection of film footage of Chuck. According to the director, the point of this supplement was to document Chuck's poetic and unique way of speaking. Although the first clip manages to illustrate Hackford's point, it's difficult to see where the remaining clips of Chuck in his work shed and onstage fit into this vision. The saving grace is an outtake from the Burnt Scrapbook extra, featuring Chuck reciting poetry accompanied by Robbie Robertson on guitar.
Disc Four contains the unedited versions of the interview snippets used in the film, and then some.Running over three and a half hours in length, the interviews start off with a Taylor Hackford introduction documenting the importance of the participants, who really need no introduction. Roy Orbison, Sam Phillips, Willie Dixon, and the Everly Brothers are only a few of the interviewees - each interview segment runs approximately one half hour, and is full of information and stories about the history of rock 'n' roll and Chuck's influence on the genre. Anyone who is fascinated by documentaries on rock music will want to find a comfortable seat for these clips.Perhaps the most entertaining is Jerry Lee Lewis, who confirms his rebel status by getting progressively more drunk, arrogant and belligerent as the interview goes on.
The Final Word:
By focusing on the history and personal life of Chuck Berry, Taylor Hackford presents a piece of filmmaking and musical history that avoids the trappings of becoming a cliche rock 'n' roll revival concert film. This set belongs in any rock 'n' roll fans collection.
Note: This review is for the four-disc edition of Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll. The 2-disc edition features only The Reluctant Movie Star, Rehearsals, and the Trailer as extras.