By Mike O’Cull
Following a run on the film festival circuit and some special drive-in showings around the USA, the official Chuck Berry documentary Chuck Berry: The Original King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll was released on Blu-ray November 27th, 2020. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Jon Brewer (B.B. King: The Life Of Riley, Nat King Cole: Afraid Of The Dark), the film is also available on most VOD platforms and is the first feature-length documentary on the life and times of guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Chuck Berry, who is widely considered to be the ultimate progenitor of rock and roll music. Brewer combines archival performance clips with commentaries from Berry-influenced luminaries including Nile Rogers, Johnny Rivers, Keith Richards, Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt, Gene Simmons, Joe Bonamassa, George Thorogood, Joe Perry, and Alice Cooper and the first-ever interview with Themetta “Toddy” Suggs, Berry’s wife of 69 years, to tell the story of the first artist to be inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. It’s a well-paced and inspiring look at the man who is arguably the most important American musician of the 20th Century and also addresses Berry’s experience as a Black artist navigating the American racial landscape of the 1950s and beyond.
Chuck Berry set the world on fire in the mid-1950s with his original guitar and vocal-based hits “Maybelline,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and many others. His lyrics were literary, poetic, entertaining, and overtly relevant to the newly-discovered demographic of the American teenager, a group Berry did much to help create. His signature guitar licks and driving rhythm style absolutely defined the first generation of rock and roll and remain a staple of the rock guitar vocabulary to the present day. He was an unstoppable blend of talent and charisma whose name has become synonymous with the music he played. Berry is the link that connected the blues to all that came after him and his place in history is forever secure.
Brewer’s film does a wonderful job telling Chuck’s story from top to bottom through vintage film clips, photos, and memories and insights from the family and friends that knew him the best. He also incorporates stylized dramatizations of different scenes from Berry’s life that are gorgeous and artful. Brewer’s interviews with Berry’s relatives and friends do much to convey the deeper, human side of Chuck that his own guarded nature didn’t often let him reveal. The film begins with his wife Themetta Suggs telling the story of meeting Berry for the first time on May 23rd, 1948. It’s a sweet, lighthearted moment that focuses the production on the person Berry actually was, not merely the music he played. Also, Brewer admirably deals with Berry’s flaws, legal issues, and incarcerations in an honest way that helps us understand him in a much more authentic manner.
The music is, of course, a huge part of this tale, too, and it’s mostly recounted by those who were directly affected and influenced by it. The very presence of so many legitimate rock stars in the film and their reverence for both Berry and his songs speaks encyclopedias about the enormous ripple effects of what he accomplished. More than that, though, Brewer shows us Charles Edward Anderson Berry, the family fan who left his public persona at the door and raised his kids, even while bridging the racial divide of 50s America with his music. It’s this aspect of the film that makes it so special. We all know the songs and guitar licks but many of the stories and opinions presented here will give rock fans a fresh perspective on Chuck and the world in which he lived. Chuck Berry: The Original King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll is an essential experience for fans of all eras of rock music and the most complete film about Berry to date. Highly recommended.
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