“If You Wanna Get It Right, Let’s Get
It Right”: Chuck Berry and Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
By Charles L. Hughes |
@CharlesLHughes2 | with thanks to NewBlackMan
Wednesday, March 22, 2017.
Over the years, I’ve
probably had more conversations about Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll than any
other film, conversations ranging from the usual oh-my-God-you’ve-gotta-see-it
stuff to late-night deconstructions of the film’s many pleasures with friends
who’ve seen it almost as many times as I have. Among all of these,
though, one sticks out. One night, I got talking with Craig Werner, my
friend and mentor whose work on American music includes the foundational A
Change Is Gonna Come, and he mentioned that the film contains “one of the
best 5 minutes about race and American music” that he’s ever seen.
Werner was referring to the movie’s most famous scene,
where Chuck Berry forces Keith Richards, maybe his best and most famous
student, to play and re-play the opening lick to “Carol,” which - according to
Chuck - Keith wasn’t accurately replicating. Berry’s right, at least in
technical terms - Richards’ opening slur lacked the exact phrasing of the
original - but Berry’s correction of Richards means far more because of what it
symbolizes. Here, one of America’s great black musicians, who also (not
coincidentally) happens to be one of its most copied by white folks, reclaims
his unique addition to the larger tradition, and - in doing so - firmly
reasserts who’s boss. After several attempts by Richards, including one
close call that provokes Berry’s finger-poking admonition that “if you wanna
get it right, let’s get it right,” Richards finally cedes control over the mysterious
slur, and Berry himself completes the lick as the rehearsal progresses.
I agreed with Craig wholeheartedly, and replied
that the film also contained my favorite 5 seconds on race and American music.
Those glorious seconds come during one of the film’s many clips of a
discussion between Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, clips which (like the
rest of the film) are both wildly entertaining and highly informative. In
one, Diddley’s trying to explain what kept black singers in the 1950s off of
white radio and TV. When Bo’s reasons veer towards rationalization,
Little Richard inimitably interjects: “You were black!” Berry responds,
“Tell him again, will you tell him again,” and Richard repeats: “You were
black.” What the Keith scene has in subtext, this moment equals in sheer
Such is the multi-layered racial critique of Hail!
Hail! Rock and Roll, a movie so thoroughly and immediately pleasurable as a
musical document that its significance as an examination of the racial politics
of rock and roll (and larger American race dynamics) almost gets lost.
Still, race permeates this film, both as larger narrative–director Taylor
Hackford deserves credit for allowing scenes like the “Carol” rehearsal to
appear unedited, as well as choosing many interview clips that speak to
relevant issues - and within the fabric of so many individual moments.
While clearly observable, these moments are highly
complicated, even contradictory, in their meanings. Berry obsessively
focuses on economics, recalling black-nationalist thought stretching back to
Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, just as the discussions of Berry’s
country-and-Latin-inflected style speaks to desegregated rock and roll culture.
He deftly explains his somewhat mercenary relationship to white
audiences, even as he imagines himself enjoying some rock concerts in his old
age: “Play that music, white boy,” he laughs knowingly.
He maintains firm control over every element of his
performances and touring life, even at the expense of his collaborators or
audiences. He credits many of the influences who helped him develop his
signature style, poetically saying that “there’s nothing new under the sun,”
while still denying his pianist Johnnie Johnson’s now-credited contributions to
his catalog. This deeply complex man is as unabashed in describing the
relationship between his own journey and that of his slave ancestors (or his
own segregation-era experiences) as he is resistant to discussions of his legal
troubles or relationships with women.
Berry’s successes–from his education to the
development of the “Berry Park” complex–speak to the age-old dreams held by
black Americans from slavery onward, and his genius–which can’t be understated,
particularly when so brilliantly on display–is testament in itself. Yet
and still, as both Richards and Eric Clapton point out, Berry often seems
unwilling to fully embrace this genius, instead falling back on showman’s
tricks and relative raggedness. (I witnessed a recent Berry show that–from
the highs to the lows–seemed like a kind of Hail! Hail!, Part 2.)
The contradictions extend to the film’s live
performances. Berry embraces his collaborators (Richards and Clapton
included), but also never fails to show them that Chuck Berry’s in charge, and
the hilarious moment when Richards refuses Berry’s mid-song request to change
key is the exception that proves the rule. Of course, Chuck’s only in
charge until Etta James comes out and blows everybody away with her
transcendent take on “Rock And Roll Music,” which Ms. James returns
to the juke joints of Chicago and East St. Louis. Berry’s visible joy
during James’ performance seems far more genuine than his hamming during Linda
Rondstadt or Julian Lennon’s serviceable appearances, and - for a moment - the
anger and bitterness simmering within Berry appears to give way to pure musical
joy. When Berry, James and Richards embrace at the end of the
performance, rock and roll’s interracial promise seems entirely tangible.
But this film’s far too good to let audiences
(black or white) simply feel good about the music, the politics, or Chuck Berry
himself. Berry’s not an entirely likeable figure in this film, his charm
and talent countered by his irritability and (particularly) the moments where
he arbitrarily cuts off interviews with his wife and female secretary when the
questions hint towards answers which might paint him in a less-than-flattering
light. In the end, Berry emerges as an African-American genius whose
talents helped him accumulate great wealth and fame, while nonetheless failing
to entirely prevent the exploitation of his accomplishments. (Or, in the
case of Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s own exploitative moments.)
Despite Keith Richards’ expressed desire to “knock
off” the chip on Berry’s shoulder, which Keith rightly attributes to the
trumped-up charge that sent Berry to prison at the height of his fame, it’s
very unlikely that any white boy, particularly one so obviously indebted to
Berry’s creativity, would be able to even get close. Particularly one who
couldn’t even play the “Carol” intro correctly.
The film’s recent 4-disc DVD release is invaluable, fulfilling
the potential of DVD “bonus features” as a means of helping to both enrich and
re-imagine the filmed experience. Uncut interviews with most of the
film’s legendary interviewees are a near-peerless primary source on rock and
roll’s development, and a compelling “making-of” feature puts a new, sometimes
disturbing context on the film’s creation and its difficult subject.
One feature particularly stands out, a 30-minute
conversation between Berry and Robbie Robertson that was entirely left out of
the finished film. At one point, while master and student flip through
one of Berry’s old scrapbooks, Berry points to himself in a picture of his
church choir. When Robertson says he recognizes the young Berry, Chuck
replies “how can you tell? They all like alike there.” Not picking up on
the racial reference, Robertson hastily replies: “Well, everyone but you.” Berry
laughs, and it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t understand the double joke
he’s just played on Robertson. After all, Berry is the “Brown-Eyed
Handsome Man” who signified his way through “Jo
Jo Gunne,” “The Promised Land” and so many others, and
here–like with Richards and “Carol”–he once again gets the best of his
There’s so much more I could say, but you all
should just watch the movie instead, whether for the first or hundredth time.
Part celebration, part meditation, part condemnation, it’s an absolute
masterpiece. Trying to understand Chuck Berry is as difficult as trying
to understand the relationship between race and American music, but who needs
If we wanna get it right, let’s get it right. Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
gets it right. Tell Tchaikovsky the news.
This piece was originally published this piece in
2009 on the great, defunct blog LivingInStereo.com edited by David Cantwell.
I’ve altered it slightly to correct a couple of factual errors and make a
couple of stylistic changes.
Charles L. Hughes is Director of the Memphis
Center at Rhodes College. His book, Country
Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, is now
available from the University of North Carolina Press. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesLHughes2.