The business of Chuck Berry
By Matthew Singer 08/31/2006
Chuck Berry is a pain in the ass. A brilliant, energetic, pioneering pain in the ass, a pain in the ass without whom the defining characteristics of rock’n’roll — the chopping rhythm guitar, the showmanship, the obsession with youth — may never have existed, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.
That is the general consensus among the crew who put together the 1986 documentary/concert film Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll, looking back 20 years later on its inaugural two-disc DVD edition. Director Taylor Hackford says so — albeit in the nicest possible manner — right at the beginning, in a newly recorded introduction: “He wasn’t always cooperative.” In a collection of retrospective interviews, the producers, musicians and others involved in the project spend over an hour expounding on that statement. They recall how Berry “blackmailed” them, demanding to renegotiate his contract practically every day of the shoot; how he confiscated footage of an impromptu gig at a prison (where he was once an inmate) and never gave it back; how he decided to perform at a county fair the night before the huge all-star concert that is the basis of the film, lost his voice, then held up the filmmakers for more money when they insisted he re-cut his vocals for the final version.
None of this is mentioned in the movie itself. Glimpses of Berry’s difficult personality do force their way through whatever barriers he, as one of the film’s producers, may have put up to protect himself — in the way he curtly refuses to discuss his multiple run-ins with the law; in the way he snaps at Keith Richards, whom Hackford brought in to arrange the big show in St. Louis celebrating Berry’s 60th birthday, for suggesting he get a new amp — but, for the most part, Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll is as praiseful as his legacy deserves (even Jerry Lee Lewis concedes, for the record, that Berry is the King of Rock’n’Roll — Lewis’ mom told him so).
At worst, the image of Chuck Berry that emerges after spending two hours with him is of a single-minded hyper-capitalist. In one of the movie’s most fascinating sequences, Hackford follows Berry as he goes through his curious routine of flying in for a gig with nothing but an overnight bag, driving himself to the venue, securing his guarantee (always in cash), meeting briefly with the local band hired by the promoter to back him, doing the show, then catching the red-eye back home. It reveals, more than the obviously plotted moments of cinematic contrivance, the machinelike fashion in which Berry operates. As he walks through the airport, a sore thumb in a polyester suit, pompadour and bolo tie, he moves with the urgent gait of a businessman about to close a deal, and that is basically what he’s doing.
Still, the tunes are unassailable, and in the performance clips Berry reveals he has enough charisma left in him to ignite a crowd just by going through the motions. And he never stops being a hassle, even at showtime: During the opening number at the Fox Theatre, he leans over to Richards and tells him they’re going to change keys out of nowhere. Afterward, Richards admits Berry “gave him more headaches than Mick Jagger,” but says he loves him anyway. After hearing the exasperating tales on the bonus disc, you get the feeling that he’s speaking for everyone.