Chuck Berry's fierce individualism, explosive talent caught in portrait film
If you ever fell in love with 1950s pop music, you know that ``Hail! Hail! Rock'n'roll'' is a memorable line from ``School Day,'' one of Chuck Berry's greatest hits. Now it's the title of a movie about Berry, one of rock music's greatest pioneers. It contains many scenes of Berry and others performing his music. Yet it's as much a portrait film as a concert film, probing as far into the musician's life and career as he's willing to allow.
In the end, Berry won't tell all: No amount of cajoling will get him to discuss some aspects of his private life, including the time he once spent in prison on a morals charge. (This much-disputed case may be covered more thoroughly in his autobiography, due later this year; it is only hinted at in the film.)
Many facets of his personality do come vividly across on screen, however, and his talent is as explosive as ever. Also valuable are discussions of his musical roots, influenced by the jazz of Charlie Christian and the rhythm-and-blues of Berry accompanist Johnny Johnson, among other sources. Interviews with stars as luminous as Bo Diddley and Little Richard lend further depth to the movie.
Already a success at the Telluride Film Festival, where I saw it, the picture will be shown tomorrow and Sunday in the New York Film Festival and open in theaters next Friday.
Although it's a documentary, ``Hail! Hail! Rock'n'roll'' was directed by Taylor Hackford, who's best known as a maker of fiction films like ``White Nights'' and the hugely popular ``An Officer and a Gentleman.''
He began his career in the TV news and documentar fields, however, and enjoyed returning to nonfiction - especially since the subject was his favorite musician.
Hackford decided to make ``Hail! Hail! Rock'n'roll'' when he learned that Keith Richards, of the renowned Rolling Stones, was organizing a band to accompany Berry in a major 60th-birthday concert. Berry joined the film project as co-producer and promised - as Hackford told me between screenings at the Telluride festival - to discuss his life and career, even though he's known to be a reclusive person.
``Chuck is a very closed and hidden man,'' Hackford says. ``Everybody knows his music, but nobody knows him.''
The filmmaker was determined to explore Berry's personality in addition to his performing, however. ``I knew the world didn't need another concert film,'' Hackford explains. ``I had a meeting with Chuck and said, `I'd be interested in doing a film that reveals you ... and why you wrote the music you did - what motivated you.' He agreed. And on the basis of that, I said I'd do the film.''
It soon became clear that Berry considered some subjects off limits. The film shows Berry roughly rejecting questions and cutting off certain lines of inquiry.
``I have great respect for him,'' says Hackford, ``and I love his music, so of course [my approach] was positive. On the other hand, I'm not interested in propagandizing the myth of Chuck Berry, either. For my ego, I wanted to look at his life from an objective point of view, and ask him objective questions that need to be asked. When it came down to that, it became very difficult for him.''
This posed a big challenge for Hackford, who still hoped to reveal as much of Berry as possible on the screen. ``As a documentary filmmaker,'' he says, ``you have to use every device you can. People will obviously reveal what they think is the best side of them, but you want to see the other side, too.''
Instead of being confrontational with Berry, the filmmaker relied on cinema's natural power to reveal personality. ``[Filmmaker Jean-Luc] Godard said film is truth 24 frames per second,'' he muses. ``If you turn the camera on Chuck long enough and let him talk, things begin to come out. And you realize there are ... themes in his life that have affected his art. One - probably the most important - is race. Another is money, which is incredibly important to him.''
Race is the theme that Berry discusses most knowingly in the film. He tells movingly of his experiences with segregation and discrimination, grieving over past wrongs and praising improvements in the American racial climate.
The theme of money also makes itself strongly felt, as Berry gloats loudly and frequently over how much his income has gone up during his career. ``Chuck has a money sickness that's probably worse than anyone I've ever met,'' Hackford says ruefully. ``But a lot of rock-and-rollers do. They're working-class people who do the music because they love it, but also because of the fame and riches. And they love that, too.''
Hackford says making ``Hail! Hail! Rock'n'roll'' was as creative an experience as directing a fiction film. ``Chuck Berry,'' he says with a smile, ``is as strong an actor and as strong a character as anyone I've ever worked with in fiction.'' He admits that a documentary-maker can't shape events the way a fiction-spinner can. ``But you don't need a dramatic script if the individual and the events are dramatic themselves.''
Hackford feels the drama of ``Hail! Hail! Rock'n'roll'' comes largely from ``the creative, improvisational spirit'' of Berry and the other musicians.
``When you see Keith Richards and Chuck Berry kind of fighting over a lick,'' he continues, ``you see two very strong egos and very strong talents up against each other. And there's a musical resolution - when they finally get it down and play, it's terrific. No words are spoken, they are unimportant. What you see is the looks on the faces, the struggle, and ultimately the communication through music.''
Now that he has weathered Berry's fierce individualism over the course of a major film project, what are Hackford's impressions of the rock-and-roll giant?
``Chuck Berry is an enigma,'' says the filmmaker. ``Chuck is reclusive and very protective and devious. But underneath it all, he's an immensely talented artist - one of the most complete I've ever met.''