Harsh Texture

Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll

An overview of the life and career of Chuck Berry, centering on a contentious 60th anniversary concert in his hometown

Elvis and John Lennon loom over Hail Hail Rock and Roll like spectres. Chuck Berry may be the only other rock star of their pedigree and stature. The two pop up constantly when the interviewees search for a suitable comparison for Berry. Via archival footage John Lennon proclaims that if Rock ‘n Roll had another name it might be called “Chuck Berry”.

Among the talking heads Hail Hail marshalls, there’s Berry’s contemporaries Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Lee Lewis. They all seem to shrink in Berry’s presence. All their dalliances as chart toppers on the forefront of rock ‘n roll ended by the mid sixties. Berry outlasted them on the charts by a decade. Even in the interviews he comes off as shrewd and comfortable with what he got from his career while the rest are quick to cite how the industry did them wrong.

Presley and Lennon share one unfortunate trait. Despite their success and regard, they ultimately weren’t the masters of their careers. Paul McCartney had wrested control of the Beatles well before Abbey Road signalled their end. Col Tom Parker ran most of Elvis’s career driving the raw talent toward mainstream and banal and keeping Presley from ever touring abroad.

The same can’t be said for Chuck Berry, but it’s clearly one of his biggest fears. Hail Hail Rock and Roll paints Berry as a man desperate to assert control of his life. If that means surrounding himself with lesser talent, sycophants, and unsophistcates then that’s all the better. Berry does bear some similarities to Elvis. Both men lost prime years of their careers to the government, Elvis to the military, and Berry with a jail stint. To a control freak like Berry this may be so shameful that he can’t fully address it. The filmmaker’s questions are forcefully parried away from the topic.

As befitting a man who played a crucial role in launching a pop culture phenomenon Berry is many things, all in excess. He’s a showman, a wordsmith, a factory-hand, beautician, poet, painter, musician, and so on. His life is an assemblage of side hustles, most not so much unsuccessful as unrealized. There’s a dilapidated nightclub in Missouri that Berry built to be a major destination for fellow Rock ‘n Roll heavyweights, but it never opened. There’s a garage full of cars under wraps. The used car lots wouldn’t give him a fair deal, so he instead put them in storage. One day they’ll be worth fifty thousand a piece, Berry predicts in a poem and whether or not they ever reached that level you can tell he’s serious. Walking into the Smithsonian African American Museum you’re greeted with one of Berry’s bright red cadillacs perhaps donated from this lot, so ultimately it was a wise move.

Personally, I found the sheer mass of side projects and side hustles endearing. Chuck Berry was a man who was going to make it someway or somehow. If music didn’t work out he could have quickly pivoted to his beautician work or his painting.

The central concern of Hail Hail Rock ‘n Roll is an anniversary concert in Chuck Berry’s hometown of St Louis. The theater hosting the concert is an opulent old building with massive staircases, huge columns, and arcades. Berry is interviewed alone in the huge entrance. He vividly recounts being turned away from the theater when a child with his father. They didn’t serve blacks. Berry slowly walks the halls like a conqueror, clearly elated to mark his victory to the cameras.

Keith Richards emerges as Chuck Berry’s foil in his attempts to assemble a crack backing-band for the anniversary performance. To a large degree Richards gets about as much screen time as he deserves, this is Chuck Berry’s film after all. But there is a crucial piece of contextualization should be noted. Yes, Richards and MIck Jagger were butting heads in the Rolling Stones. By 1987 though, for all intents and purposes Jagger established lasting control of the band and Richards has never stopped stewing over it.

Viewed through this lens, Richards’ self-appointed role as bandleader feels like a carryover of his war with Jagger. Berry is always keen to maintain a level of control. His insistence on using pickup bands stuffed with local musicians meant in practice that no musician could upstage him. As an extra precaution Berry didn’t bother to rehearse before a performance nor share the set list with even his co-performers. Bruce Springsteen did his bit as a one-and-done backing band for Berry, and he remembers Berry jumping into each new song without conference often changing keys without warning mid-song. Keith Richards thought quite poorly of this spectacle, and sought to build a backing band stuffed with top-level talent.

When Chuck walks into rehearsal the look on his face is pure horror. Robert Cray and Keith Richards toss fiery blues lines between them. It’s fluid and technically precise. These aren’t the kind of players that Berry could slag off.

No one benefited more from Hail Hail Rock and Roll than Johnnie Johnson. An amiable, plain spoken man, yet a fierce piano player. Johnson gave Berry a start, and in return Berry took over his band. Johnson never left though. He continued playing in Berry’s band throughout the fifties and sixties. Richards deduces that it was Johnson who actually provided the music behind Chuck Berry’s greatest hits. He points to all the songs in keys more common on piano than guitar.

Following the film Johnson left his profession as a bus driver and once again became a full-time musician. He would tour for the remainder of his life both under his name and supporting legendary rock n’ roll acts.

I can’t help but feel that Chuck Berry manages to outshine all the tactics Richards employs to complicate his legacy. Foremost, while Johnson is a natural talent at the piano, its impossible to imagine his music reaching great popularity without Chuck Berry performing it. The difference in charisma between the two men is astounding.

While the fast guitar licks are a large part of Berry’s contribution to music, they pale a bit next to the lyrics he penned for his most famous songs. In an era when Rock ‘n Roll lyrics consisted primarily of the word “rock” paired with primitive scatting a la “Be Bop A Lua”, Berry crafted a series of songs that targeted the aspirations of the emerging teenage market. Sometimes he created those aspirations from whole cloth. His frequent disses against classical music (“Roll over Beethoven/And tell Tchaikovsky the news”) positioned Rock ‘n Roll as an equal and opposite, one that should be cherished for its immediacy and where complexity wasn’t necessarily a virtue. The adherents of jazz and country were never so bold. Berry was able to make teenage anthems out of thinly veiled civil rights stories. He simply possessed a deftness of phrase that none of his peers approached.

There’s the matter of the show itself. The Richards-led revue features sterling playing, matching costumes, and A-list guests. But it hardly improves on Chuck playing at a black club with one of his hastily assembled pick up groups. Chuck is looser and directly engaged with the audience. In the massive auditorium, for an overwhelmingly white audience, Berry seems more guarded. Surrounded by top notch players who can play rings around him, Berry tries to assert some level of dominance throughout the performance. He once again tries the old “change key” trick, but Richards is no Bruce Springsteen and waves him off. When Eric Clapton spins a gorgeous solo Berry prods him to play even longer.

Chuck Berry’s legend survived his anniversary concert, just like he survived prison, and life on the nostalgia circuit. It survived this documentary even though all its insinuations register. That’s the way it is with truly great people. Their sins make them larger. They become more notable somehow.

Published: April 8, 2018, 12:24 p.m.
Updated: April 8, 2018, 12:24 p.m.