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“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 (in exile)

 

 

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 directness.

 

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 non-black admirer.

 

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 simple answers?


If we wanna get it right, let’s get it right. Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll gets it right.  Tell Tchaikovsky the news.

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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.

 

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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.

 

“If You Wanna Get It Right, Let’s Get It Right”: Chuck Berry and Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll

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