Thursday, June 15, 2006
USA (UNI):Twenty years ago, a camera crew and some of the world's biggest rock stars ventured to St. Louis to help Chuck Berry celebrate his 60th birthday. They were lucky to survive the experience. The famously prickly ''father of rock 'n' roll'' shook down the filmmakers for a big bag of cash every day, almost started a prison riot, belittled his protege Keith Richards, hit on the female producer and then lost his voice for the climactic all-star concerts before a hometown crowd.
The darkly comic saga is detailed in the new DVD of ''Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll,'' which was originally released in movie theatres in 1987. Long out of print on home video, the film was directed by Taylor Hackford, who went on to collaborate with another musical icon, Ray Charles, for the movie ''Ray.'' The two back-to-back concerts at the Fox Theatre in October 1986 served as the backbone for the original film. Hackford shot the difficult rehearsals at Berry's rundown estate, interviewed Berry, his family members and associates, and added often-raucous commentary from peers such as Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
''I signed on to this as a celebration of somebody who had had a major impact on our lives,'' Hackford told Reuters in a recent interview. ''So we went there to celebrate him, and we had every expectation to expect a lot of cooperation because he was also a producer. Lo and behold ... we found quite a different situation.''
Rolling Stones guitarist Richards, whose adoration for Berry over the years has largely been greeted with disdain and even a sucker punch by his idol, was musical director of the concerts. Long disappointed by Berry's take-the-money-and-run gigs, he assembled an ace house band, insisted that Berry rehearse and invited the likes of Eric Clapton, Etta James and Robert Cray to play the shows. In the film, an exhausted Richards described the experience as torture, adding, ''He gives me more headaches than Mick Jagger. But I still can't dislike him.''
One key scene shows Berry and Richards at loggerheads during rehearsals over the chords for ''Carol,'' one of about a dozen Berry songs covered by the Stones during their career. ''That was a very tough moment,'' Hackford said, ''because it was a humiliating moment where Chuck is taking him to school ...it's like, 'Go ahead, Keith. You're the big rock 'n' roll star. Blow up and stomp off.' Keith just stood his ground.''
Hackford said Berry, now 79 and still playing one-nighters, had no involvement in the production of the DVD, which will be released on June 27. Although they are on fairly cordial terms, Hackford recalled that Berry dismissively laughed at him when he asked to license some unseen concert footage.
''Everything with Chuck Berry has to do with the dollar sign. But you know what? It's OK.'' That's the basic sentiment of many who have dealt with Berry. He may be tyrannical, but if he had not written tunes like ''Maybelline,'' ''Johnnie B. Goode'' and ''Roll Over Beethoven,'' the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan might not have gone very far. A call to his long-time booking agent was not returned.
Less enamoured was producer Stephanie Bennett, who put the whole project together, and recalled in the documentary that she was rewarded with constant unwelcome advances from Berry, whom Hackford described as ''a major sexual animal.'' Such attention paled against the groping Bennett and Berry's girlfriend endured from horny inmates when Berry took the filmmakers to the prison where he did three years for armed robbery as a youth. The only way they could avert a riot was if Berry played for the captives, which he did. Hackford shot the priceless footage, but Berry took it from him and has refused to give it back. Only some still photos capture the event.
Perhaps worst of all, Berry refused to show up for filming each day until Bennett gave him a bag of cash, which is how he used to be paid for his slapdash concerts. She estimates that Berry cajoled upwards of $800,000 out of the production, a hefty sum given that the budget was $3 million. Hackford was forced to give up his director's fee in order to stem the tide of red ink but ended up with the DVD rights.
Berry's love of money yielded a key scene in the film but almost scuppered the birthday concert. Midway through rehearsals, he surprised the filmmakers by announcing plans to play a show in Columbus, Ohio. They followed him on the trek, showing how he travels alone, armed only with his guitar, a comb and a toothbrush, pockets his fee before playing a note, performs for the contracted duration, and flies straight home afterwards. Unfortunately, he lost his voice after the gig and was barely able to sing during the birthday concerts a few days later. Most of the audio footage was overdubbed during post-production with Berry taking a fee for his time.
While the documentary does not paint Berry in a flattering light, Hackford -- a Peabody Award-winning TV journalist in an earlier life -- sees the DVD as a well-intentioned attempt to preserve for posterity ''a really complicated, very complex individual. ''Nobody is ever gonna know what really goes on inside that head. No one's ever gonna do the entire picture of Chuck Berry because it's just too deep and dark.''