Chuck Berry Documentarian Taylor Hackford's Tribute to a "Diabolical, Complicated, Talented" Star
The music legend, who died Saturday at 90, is recalled by the director of 1987's 'Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll' as a difficult talent who demanded cash in a paper bag but earned the title of "the greatest" of his era.
Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll is Taylor Hackford’s 1987 documentary framed around an Oct. 16, 1986, concert at the Fox Theater in St. Louis to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday. Among those appearing were Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. To honor Berry, who died Saturday at 90, Hackford remembers the film and its central character.
Chuck was more difficult than any movie star I’ve ever worked with. More complicated, more difficult, more diabolical. Diabolical is a fitting term. At the same time, I totally loved him.
I had six days to make the entire movie work, including the concert. The first day, I wanted to interview Chuck in the Cosmo Club in East St. Louis, Ill. — the first club he played in. I said, “I’ll send a car for you. He said, “Nobody drives Chuck Berry except Chuck Berry.” I said I wanted to start at 7 in the morning, and he said, “No problem, I’ll be there.”
We get the crew there, we’re all set. This is a documentary and I don’t have much money and I need every precious second. At 7 o’clock, no Chuck Berry. At 7:30, 8 o’clock, no Chuck Berry. I got worried because he was very prompt. I called his assistant. She said, “Chuck left at 5:30 this morning.” So we wait.
That part of East St. Louis was like a war zone. A very difficult place. A lot of drugs and prostitutes. All of a sudden a pay phone on the corner starts ringing. Obviously this is someone trying to get hold of someone for some drug deal. It keeps ringing and finally a crew member picks it up and and says to me, “It’s for you.”
It was Chuck. I said, “Where are you?” He said, “I just want you to know, everything’s cool between you and me. Let me talk to [producer Stephanie Bennett].” Universal was paying him $500,000 for all the music and all the rights, but he wanted $2,500 in a brown paper bag.
It was Saturday. All the banks were closed. Somehow she pieced the money together. It took all morning and early afternoon to get it. Chuck showed up at 3 o’clock. That was his M.O. Here we were to celebrate him, and he did everything to sabotage us.
I love Chuck Berry, but every day was a negotiation. It is not an exaggeration to say he was the most difficult star I have ever known, as complicated and talented as anybody I’ve ever met. He let me inside his life — up to a point. He could make me laugh; very few people could be as charming, but he could turn on a dime and be as dark as it gets. He was totally unpredictable. Chuck was full of contradictions, but always shining through was the talent. Everybody was in awe.
Bruce Springsteen was not part of the birthday concert, but he had played backup for Chuck Berry, and he tells this story of Chuck getting his money in cash, walking on stage, not talking to [the band members] and starting to play without even giving them a chance to tune [their instruments].
But he was the most important figure in rock 'n' roll. Every rock 'n' roll guy starts by playing Chuck Berry songs. Elvis got rock 'n' roll into white teenagers’ bedrooms, but no one matched Chuck Berry, and the creators of rock 'n' roll all admitted it. Jerry Lee Lewis has a big ego, but in the movie, Jerry Lee Lewis says on camera, “He’s the greatest.”
Chuck Berry defined rock 'n' roll guitar, he was a fantastic performer, but more importantly, he was the first great rock 'n' roll songwriter. All of them — The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Prince — they’ve all said they wouldn’t be there without Chuck Berry. And he did it over and over again.