Dec. 11, 2005
Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll (1987)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Taylor Hackford
Stars: Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton

What it's about. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards gets a band together to play at the 60th birthday celebration for rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry. Numerous guests include Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Etta James, and two flavors of the day, Julian Lennon and Robert Cray.

How others will see it. This is a biography with more interest in the present than in the past. We learn much about the Chuck Berry of 1987, and good feel for his personality. Missing links between 1957 and 1987 are left little explored, but not many people will care. Especially when folks like Richards, Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Roy Orbison, and the Everly Brothers are interviewed.

How I felt about it. Chuck Berry is a legend, but he's not perfect. In his mid-fifties heyday, he was rock 'n' roll's greatest songwriter. His recordings during this era were spectacular, but since we hear only 1987 versions of them, their quality isn't fully demonstrated.

Concerning the 1987 Berry, his remarkable confidence puts him over, but his guitar playing doesn't hold a candle to Richards and Clapton, and his chaotic, mugging stage manner gets in the way of his performances. The once burning ambition has faded slightly into the glow of a businessman who knows his product and customers. The music remains, but it takes a back seat to showmanship.

Chuck Berry, a practical man, was always good at figuring. But he's not truly a reflective man. No need to write new songs, or try something truly different. On the other hand, to stand up and simply play a set would be boring. He always wants to change keys and pester the lead singer with interjections, perhaps to ensure that the show's spotlight keeps near him.

Chuck Berry is a difficult interview. When the subject is his rising career, circa 1955, or tales of his childhood, he's gracious. But he won't open up about his forty years of marriage, or his three prison stints. If its negative or personal, it's off limits. Ask about the business model, and he'll tell you all about it.

So, only pieces of Chuck Berry and his story emerge. Although incomplete, one at least learns about two of Berry's personalities, the performer and the tradesman. The artist was more or less spent by 1964, when "No Particular Place to Go" finished his catalog of classics.

But what a legacy his fifties recordings provided. They were the major influence of Richards, and an important influence on Clapton, Springsteen, and countless other rockers. Their reverence for Chuck Berry the pioneer, 1956, allows these legends to accept the stage demands and antics of Chuck Berry the Ham, 1987.