EDITOR'S NOTE: Below is an earlier review of a Greenpoint Film Festival feature, which was previously also a keynote feature of the recent Nashville Film Festival
Headlights shine brightly on a deserted highway. Johnny B. Good blares from a car radio. A pale woman’s face framed by a scarf; her cherry red lips comes into view. A red, shiny Cadillac pulls into a gas station and abruptly halts. A man in fine, leather shoes and a colorful suit emerges spinning and swaggering into the station office. This stylized reenactment, and others are used to illuminate events in Chuck Berry’s life. We see bright, neon colors coming out of the darkness as a metaphor for the emergence of rock n’ roll from Southern Blues and Hillbilly music. This is CHUCK BERRY, the latest film documentary by famed director, Jon Brewer.
Showing Chuck Berry Growing up in St. Louis
Told affectionately in interviews by his wife, Themetta, the Berry children, grandchildren, and interspersed with Rock ‘n Roll Legends, we hear stories about the devoted man that loved his family, returning to them for sanctuary from arduous road trips around the US and the world. We hear how the handsome Charles Berry flirted with and met his wife. We see old family photos. He was tall, had pretty, flashing eyes, flowing hair and a captivating, wide smile. He courted her-- taking her on drives in his slick car. He confessed to her that he spent three years in a reformatory for stealing money and a car on a road trip to Hollywood, a rebellious streak that provides foreshadowing for his life. Would she marry him? She was thrilled to say yes! He began playing music and eventually started playing local gigs. Old playbills, yellowed and water-stained list his play dates. He altered his name on his musician’s card so his father’s church wouldn’t kick the family out of the parish if they found out Charles was playing The Devil’s Music. These anecdotes illustrate those early days. Eventually, with the church’s blessings, he used Chuck Berry as his entertainment persona and kept Charles Berry for his family. Amid the harassment of local authorities, Jim Crow laws, and the lynching of African Americans, Chuck Berry became the founder of Rock ‘n Roll, an international sensation. Overtime, he also became a local club and business owner. The restaurant would later become a source of a scandalous crime.
Rock ‘n Roll
Chuck Berry’s impact on music is described by a virtual Who’s Who of Rock ‘n Roll, Blues and industry Superstars. The likes of Muddy Waters, Gene Simmons, Bruce Springsteen, George Thorogood, Steve Van Zandt, Johnny Rivers, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nils Lofgren, John Lennon, Jimmy Marsala, Paul McCarthy, Marshall Chess and Joe Bonamassa all agreed that he was phenomenal. Interviews done for this documentary and archival footage show Chuck Berry’s musical contributions, including playing percussion on his guitar, his classic riffs combining rhythm and lead, and his unparelled introduction of guitar virtuoso solos to rock music’s lexicon. Chuck Berry was the first to write lyrics for and about teens with a driving beat; designed to be played loud. We see the specific amps he insisted on because they had high volume, and his demanding physicality on stage with moves such as his famous Duck Walk. He didn’t just sing and play, he performed, danced, and got his audience moving.
Racism and Jim Crow
Admiring Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry sang with playful lyrics carefully annunciated. Promoters that hired him for club gigs and DJ’s that played Chuck Berry’s music thought he was White. Upon learning he was Black, in shock they smashed his records. For a while they refused to play his music. This was short-lived however, because White audiences brought him back by popular demand. He integrated clubs. Chuck Berry became the first Black rock ‘n roll musician to play previously all White radio stations. Was that why he had a reputation for always being in the company of beautiful, White paramours and felt driven to push the envelope on racism?
Chuck Berry was at times demanding and erratic. Keith Richards exclaimed that working with Chuck Berry gave him “more headaches than Mick Jagger.” Did Chuck Berry resent these younger, White musicians, covering his music, touring, and making a name for themselves without having paid the same dues he had?
Life and the Law on the Road
Life on the road could be treacherous. Unscrupulous promoters sometimes wouldn’t pay musicians so he and other entertainers began asking for pay up-front, in cash, before he performed. The “cash goes in the guitar case before the guitar comes out.” These cash payments led to tax evasion charges by the IRS at the same time as other performers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Nelson were convicted of the same. Like the others, Chuck Berry paid his fines, but he alone had to serve years in prison. His attorney, Wayne Schoenberg, in an interview, pauses to opine that Chuck Berry was in eastern Missouri not in LA or New York where he might not have seen prison time. Still, Chuck Berry kept going.
This documentary paints a rich, robust, and colorful portrait of Chuck Berry. If you covet rock ‘n roll music and want to learn more about its origins and founder, Chuck Berry, or you want to examine post WWII American History, racism and Jim Crow, this Movie would be a top pick for you
For more information on the Greenpoint Film Festival where this film was featured visit the Greenpoint Film Festival website.
Directed by Jon Brewer
For information on upcoming screenings follow @ChuckBerryFilm
Photos courtesy of CHUCK BERRY Film
About Caryn Hoffman
Ms. Hoffman has a degree in art and her life’s work has been environmentally and politically focused. After community organizing on both coasts, she had a career as an educator in Southern California. Now, semi-retired, Ms. Hoffman leads an active, outdoor lifestyle, continues to advocate for the environment and travels. She is especially fond of art, film, cultural events and is an ardent, live music fan. She loves adventure travel including camping, hiking, kayaking, rafting and road biking.