The purpose of Taylor Hackford’s 1987 film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll was to document two concerts held at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis to celebrate Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday, and that it does, giving audiences loads of concert footage. Berry plays the hits, backed by an all-star band of legendary bluesmen, R&B singers, and rock guitarists, assembled and directed by president of the Chuck Berry fan club, Keith Richards: There’s Bobby Keys and Chuck Leavell, Robert Cray and Eric Clapton, Etta James and Linda Ronstadt. And that’s not to mention the talking head appearances from people like Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, and Bruce Springsteen. In the pantheon of rock-docs, it’s right up there with Last Waltz. The live takes are electrifying—the band’s pistons pound as they struggle to keep up with Berry. If the man had slowed down any in his sixth decade, it’s little wonder he had trouble holding onto backing bands in his youth. Watch him go in the 1958 clip below.
But there’s another reason Berry burned through musicians. He is not an easy man to work with (nor, I would think, for). Brilliant live performances abound in Hackford’s film, but one of its principle charms is the rehearsal footage, where Berry berates and bewilders his musicians–and sometimes, like he does above to Richards, takes them to rock ‘n’ roll school. In the clip above, Richards, Berry, and band rehearse “Carol,” but it takes them a good while to get going. Richards tries to play bandleader and, thinking he’s doing Chuck a favor—or not wanting to lose the spotlight—suggests that Berry play rhythm while he plays the lead.
Berry agrees at first. They bicker and look daggers at each other as Richards spoils a bend that only Chuck can play to his own satisfaction. Finally he dives in and takes over. Why not? It is his song. Richards falls in line, takes the rhythm part, but looks a little sullen as Berry outshines him. It’s almost an oedipal struggle. But the rock forefather isn’t about to roll over and let Richards take over.
Elsewhere in the film, Berry gives voice to the underlying anger he harbored for Richards. The Stones and other British bands took Berry’s riffs (he claimed) and made millions, and Chuck never forgave them. He still doesn’t get enough credit. The Rolling Stones still tour and record, but Berry, almost twenty years older than Richards, is still out on the road too, still showing ‘em how it’s done. See second video below.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness