Thursday, July 06, 2006

Crazy Like A Chuck

Chuck Berry : legend, convict, hero, complete galah, businessman, evil genius.

Right: A man with a plan.

Taylor Hackford's 1987 doco Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll has been released in a four DVD box set and I'm here to tell you all about it. Available only as a US import in Oz, it's a wee bit pricey (I got mine from Red Eye in York St) but chock full of extras so you won't be complaining. A more economic 2 disc set is also out there, which omits the last two discs. If you've already seen it, I'm sure you'll want to see it again and hear more of the, uh, eventful filming process. If you haven't, like me, it's a treat.

Over the fold, some pictures and a run down of all four discs.

"$76.48, Chuck, and that's my final offer!"

Disc One and Disc Two
The actual movie (remastered in lah-dee-dah widescreen, DTS and 5.1. Bully for you people who have more than two inch speaks to listen to it through) with intro by Taylor Hackford, rehearsal footage and "The Reluctant Movie Star", a making of.

The idea is simple and sweet: celebrate Chuck Berry, who many believe had never received his due as one of the most important forces behind this new art form, rock and roll. Keith wanted to give him a hot band to play with, for the first time in years. Hackford wanted to take Chuck around the East St Louis haunts of his youth, talk to his family and the many musicians influenced by him, and then film a celebratory concert for his 60th birthday. This is all accomplished in the film itself, with only hints at the behind-the-scenes drama. It stands alone as a superior music film. A rather unsubtle thread running through it is Chuck's "neurosis" about money. Every question put to him seems to have money as the answer. In a way this attitude is admirable given the way these guys were ripped off up and down the country but it's rather amusingly obsessive in this case. On the other hand, Chuck is pretty modest and generous with priase for other musicians. He is quite deliciously Lex Luthor-ish when he talks about taking over Johnny Johnson's band back at the Cosmopolitan Club in East St Louis in 1953. You know how Johnny Depp based pirate Jack Sparrow on Keef? New Lex Luthor Kevin Spacey could do worse than watch this, and learn.

Contemporaries and acolytes are interviewed: Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the Everly brothers, Roy Orbison -- see Disc Three and Four below for more on them. One thing, throughout the discs they keep referring to Chuck as the first singer-songwriter. I don't know what chronology this is based on or with what qualifications but, say, Hank Williams was dead two years before Maybelline was even released. Just to name one. Maybe they mean rock or r&b singer-songwriter? Or the first to have popular chart success? If so, they don't qualify it like that. Enlighten me, readers.

A real treat is the reunion of Berry with his pianist "Bullet Hand" Johnnie Johnson, who was very much responsible for the whole Berry sound (in 2005 he unsuccessfully sued Chuck for co-writer credits on alot of his hits.) The producers found Johnson driving a bus in St Louis and he has clearly lost none of his touch. On the second disc rehearsal, the band jams long and righteously and you can choose one of three different angles to watch it. Of course you flick straight to the Chuck Berry-Eric Clapton-Keith Richards jam.

"Hmmm. I'm sure I've seen that riff somewhere before ... "

But equally watch Johnson and Chuck Leavell on piano and organ -- don't get much better.

The sensible piano section.

The rehearsal extras are intro'd by Hackford and Steve Jordan. The scenes of Chuck worshipping Etta James after first being totally opposed to her inclusion are great. At the end of the main film there is a snippet of Chuck in the semi-dark doing some quiet standards, the whole medley is included here and it is a knock-out. An hour including the intros and chat and I wish there were hours more.

Back to the movie. Bruce Springsteinsteen (at the height of megastardom in '86/'87) relates opening for Chuck and Jerry Lee around 1973, and then backing Chuck for his set.

Chuck, says Bruce, turned up seconds before show time, demanded a bag of cash to go on stage, and went on with barely a word to the panicky band who then had to wing the music. Travelling alone without his own band keeps it cheap for Chuck but is a self-inflicting hit to his legacy. No direct comparison is drawn with Bruce's story and the shenanigans behind Hail! Hail! but we are invited to make the connection. Indeed, in the making of Hackford says that was his intent.

The concert itself is beautifully done. Alot of Chuck's vocals had to be later redubbed because he'd blown his voice, I knew this but still couldn't spot where they'd done it. The guests are great, Julian Lennon is rather forgettable but Chuck wanted him for historical reasons. In the picture on the box he looks like a cross between k.d lang and Pee Wee Herman and I could not for the life of me work out who it was, since his name is nowhere mentioned. Not going to shift many units, Jude, I guess.

Most of the drama of filming was left out by Hackford out of geniune respect and because that was not the film he was making. The booklet notes,

what Hackford once held back out of respect for Chuck, he's now releasing for the same reason, trusting that as Chuck approaches eighty, he's earned the right to be seen, and we're ready to see him, with all the warts of his cranky, contrary character in sharpest focus.

Basically, they were on a tight schedule (only a week or so) and budget and Chuck made their lives hell. Not turning up, wouldn't move unless given a bag of cash -- literally, a bag. Filled with cash -- changing his schedule at no notice, hitting on everything in a skirt. Just generally being a jerk. In fact, to keep up with Chuck's constant financial demands, Hackford waived his own director's fee. Extremely disturbing is the story of visiting a prison where Chuck did some time, which resulted in some of the women in the crew and his entourage being assaulted by a mob of inmates. Those involved feel Berry orchestrated the event on purpose.

Bearing the brunt of the money and personal issues was producer Stephanie Bennett. Keith says in the movie that despite Chuck's faults and "giving him more headaches than Mick Jagger", he can't help but like him. Bennett's pursed lips suggest she feels no such ambivalance. In the film and especially the extras there are enough glimpses though of charm, pride and vulnerability to see temper the view. A complex portrait indeed.

Note: if you want the big stars, there are no extra interviews with Keith or Eric Clapton, "just" the rehearsal footage.

Disc Three and Four: "Chuckisms" Chuck quotes and "Burnt Scrapbook", a chat/interview between Chuck and Robbie Robertson ("musical consultant" on the main film but not in it.) The stand out is Chuck reciting a couple of poems (including this one), which he apparently learnt in jail. Rather glorious. Chuck is pretty engaging and Robbie does a reasonable job.

"Levon hates me almost as much as the producers hate you."

Also on Disc Three, "Witnesses to History #1" with the full interviews with Bo Diddley and Little Richard, who has his own endearing kind of crazy going on. Disc Four is "Witnesses to History #2" with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Dixon, the Everly Brothers, Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun. Phillips and Ertegun are the only ones not in the main film at all. Look, they are all brilliant, very entertaining and invaluable documents. You'll need to see them all and that's that.So, if you've perservered this far you're probably already sold on the idea of this set. I can't imagine anyone being disappointed, except that seven hours of goodness is barely enough.

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