At two hours, Taylor Hackford's "Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" is as long and unwieldy as its title, but it's probably the most revealing look we'll ever get of its subject, and the most loving evocation of his music. It's a mix of rehearsal and performance footage, "You Are There" interviews with Berry and "Reds"-style testimonials from contemporaries and heirs.
Jerry Lee Lewis is still riled that his own mom considered his fabled rival the real King of Rock 'n' Roll. "I always thought I was," he objects, only to be told, " 'Well, you and Elvis are pretty good, but you're no Chuck Berry.' "
There's Little Richard confessing that "his rhythm is the only one I can sing my songs to," and Springsteen explaining how Berry's influence "came out later when I wanted to write the way I thought that people talked." Bruce Springsteen then hums "Nadine": " 'I saw her on the corner, then she turned and doubled back/ Started walking to a coffee-colored Cadillac' ... I've never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac, but I know exactly what one looks like!"
There's also plenty of Berry confirming that his songs are merely the coins of his realm, that for him rock 'n' roll has always been about commerce, not art. He's somewhat single-minded on this theme, but in such a charming, honest manner that you can't get mad at him.
The centerpiece of the film is the 60th-birthday celebration for Berry held last October at St. Louis' Fox Theater, an ornate 1920s movie house where he was refused admission as a child because of his race. Rolling Stone Keith Richards, his most ardent disciple and occasional sparring partner, had always been disturbed by Berry's sloppy pickup bands, so he signed on as musical director, put together a powerhouse band, dressed it up in matching outfits and gave Berry the most focused and sympathetic backing he'd had in decades.
Of course, being Berry, he wasn't particularly eager to do something he hadn't done in 25 years, namely rehearse, and there are some funny but tense scenes between him and Richards. And after all the rehearsals, Berry still tried to change keys and arrangements on stage. "He gives me more headaches than Mick Jagger, but I still can't complain," Richards complains. "I love him, and I've done what I wanted to do for him. Now I'm going to sleep for a month."
The concert features some fine performances by Berry, including "No Money Down" and "Too Much Monkey Business," a song that obviously influenced Bob Dylan. Bluesman Robert Cray comes out for "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Eric Clapton for a slow and searing "Wee Wee Hours." Linda Ronstadt recaps her hit version of "Back in the USA" (nice to hear her back in the rock 'n' roll), and Etta James pumps out some "Rock and Roll Music." Julian Lennon gives a decent reading of "Johnny B. Goode," but Berry's comment after the performance -- "Say hello to your papa" -- makes you wonder.
The film also includes footage of a special performance by Berry and his backup band of the 1950s at the now-shuttered Cosmopolitan Club in East St. Louis, Ill., and this has much more of the bluesy, down-home feel of the music he was making on weekends before embarking on his recording career. These scenes, and the concert, should reestablish pianist Johnnie Johnson's importance in the early Berry sound, as his rolling rhythms and darting right-hand figures rock the music wildly.
There are also scenes of Berry at Berry Park and several hilarious round-table discussions with Bo Diddley and Little Richard -- who steals every scene he's in even as he makes a case for how blacks were cut out of rock 'n' roll in the '50s, when the music became separate but not equal: "R&B became what we was doing and rock 'n' roll became what white kids was doing."
Hackford's love for early rock 'n' roll is evident throughout (he also produced "La Bamba," the story of '50s singing star Ritchie Valens), and that he managed to get Berry talking as much as he does is a minor miracle. There are still some clumsy moments, though: bringing up Berry's prison terms only to be told he won't talk about it (so why include it?) and suggesting that Berry's had a lot of fun with groupies.
"If you keep those home fires burning, you do what you want to do," Berry proclaims. "As I always said, use discretion, be sensible about it." Hackford then trots out Berry's wife of almost 40 years, but her testimony sounds like a hostage's speech before it's abruptly cut off.
Still, it's the music that rings true, and that has been ringing true for 30 years. You may learn more about Chuck Berry than you want to know (and a lot less than he'll let you know), but you'll also find yourself rocking and rolling, any old way you choose it.
Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, opening today at the Circle Embassy, is rated PG.