What the Chuck

Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll

The proper ways to describe Chuck Berry are legion: musical genius, master innovator, rock ’n’ roll outlaw, consummate businessman. Incorrigible asshole.

Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, out now for the first time on DVD, brilliantly supports those first four claims; the extra features of this ludicrously stocked set finally take care of that last one.

The core of the film is Chuck’s high-profile, 60th-birthday hometown concert, featuring an über-backup band assembled by Keith Richards and numerous celebrity guests. As Berry rehearses with the band and discusses his life and career, the narrative gets chopped up by a who’s who of rock ’n’ rollers singing his praises in brief sound bites. Berry also manages to squabble with Richards constantly, forget most of his own lyrics and somehow still pull off the impressive and energetic concert before the final credits roll.

Notwithstanding a few glimpses of stubborn pigheadedness, Hackford cut the film as a celebration of Chuck Berry. But, in reality, whether demanding a wad of cash every morning before agreeing to appear on camera, or putting the whole concert in jeopardy by blowing out his voice at a surprise Ohio gig, Berry’s behind-the-scenes antics quickly became so astonishing that they clearly merited their own hour-long documentary.

Another hour of inspiring unseen rehearsals rounds out the two-disc version of Hail! Hail!; pick up the four-disc deluxe edition for more than four hours of uncut interviews with the rock greats and a few more glimpses into Chuck’s past and personal life. Despite his lack of social grace, this immensely talented and charismatic showman deserves the honor of a documentary—and, in truth, his shenanigans just make it all the more entertaining.