Review: Chuck Berry’s 1987 Concert Film with 7 Hours of Bonus Material

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Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, which first came out in 1987, has arrived on Blu-ray looking better than ever—and sounding great too, with DTS-HD Master audio surround sound. The movie, whose centerpiece is a concert marking Berry’s 60th birthday, was directed by Taylor Hackford, whose credits also include Ray, the Ray Charles biopic. It finds Berry performing his biggest hits, including “Almost Grown,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Nadine,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Too Much Monkey Business” and “No Particular Place to Go.” He shares the spotlight on songs like “Back in the U.S.A.” (with Linda Ronstadt), “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (Robert Cray), “Rock and Roll Music” (Etta James), “Johnny B. Goode” (Julian Lennon) and “Wee Wee Hours” (Eric Clapton).

Watch “Johnny B. Goode” from the film

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, the show’s musical director, accompanies Berry throughout, as does Berry’s longtime collaborator, pianist Johnnie Johnson. Berry’s voice is a bit rough—he had the flu on the night of the concert—but his guitar work and stage antics are terrific, as are virtually all of his accompanists. Also featured in the film are memorable interviews with such artists as Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Bruce Springsteen (who tells a funny and revealing story about backing up Berry at a concert years earlier).

Related: 17 classic Chuck Berry covers

The two-hour movie does a great job of showcasing Berry’s talents as both songwriter and performer but—perhaps inevitably, since he served as coproducer—it only hints at his legal troubles and difficult personality. For details about all that, however, you need only turn to The Reluctant Movie Star, one of the bonus features on this two-disc collector’s edition: this documentary about the making of Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll fills in most of the blanks—the good, the bad and the ugly—with variously humorous, disturbing and astonishing commentary and anecdotes from the filmmakers and assorted Berry associates.

Watch Chuck Berry and Keith Richards rehearse

More often than not, when you watch a Blu-ray’s “bonus” material, you understand why it didn’t make it into the film. In this case, though, the extras—which run about seven hours (!)—are just as memorable as the main attraction. In addition to the aforementioned Reluctant Movie Star, they include long interviews with Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun and artists like Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Dixon. Also here: nearly an hour of excellent rehearsal footage; a long discussion of rock’s early days by Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard; and video of a meeting between Berry and the Band’s Robbie Robertson during which they flip through Berry’s scrapbook together and reminisce.

Watch “No Particular Place to Go” from the film

Related: Dave Edmunds shares two Chuck Berry stories

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Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger's website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades' worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.
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  1. v2&*&
    #1 v2&*& 2 December, 2019, 11:10

    Chuck Berry basically invented rock ‘n roll, and he deserves full credit for that. His music will live forever. Apparently, though, he could be a real jerk and an arrogant, obnoxious SOB. His insecurities always seemed to surface, and he hurt a lot of people along the way. It’s too bad, because he never really seemed to grasp how much people wanted to love and embrace him. He was always wary, brittle, defensive, and never let his guard down in public. (In his defense, he was a successful Black man in a racist country that didn’t take kindly to such things. Perhaps it’s no wonder that he was so bitter.)

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