Greenpoint Film Festival Review: Chuck Berry

Year: 2019
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: Jon Brewer
Writer: Laura Brewer (storyline), Laura Royko

By James Cain

You know Chuck Berry. Even if you haven’t consciously sought out and listened to his records, you’ve heard him in films (eg Johnny B. Goode in “Back To The Future” and You Never Can Tell in “Pulp Fiction”), and heard the musicians he’s influenced (basically any guitarist post-1960). To be blunt, Chuck Berry is not only a legend: he may be the most influential musician to ever live, and new documentary “Chuck Berry” goes forth with that 100% in mind, to both its benefit and detriment.

“Chuck Berry” is the latest film from Jon Brewer, a man who turned a successful career as a music manager into a successful film as a music documentarian. As with much of his work, this look at the life of Charles Edward Anderson Berry enjoys incredible access to both interviewees and previously-recorded interviews, as well as amazing footage of Berry throughout the years (he lived from 18th October 1926 to 18th March, though footage of him only really exists from his first televised performances).

It’s fairly standard fare for a music doc, but it’s superbly put together. The film opens with Themetta Berry, Chuck’s wife, before we enjoy sit-downs with his grown kids and grandkids, plus rock and blues musicians such as Joe Bonamassa, Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Nile Rodgers, Gene Simmons, Gary Clark Jr. and Stephanie Bennett, to name just a few from the huge roster of interviewees.

Copyright: MVD Entertainment Group

And that’s what this documentary is: A sit down with Chuck Berry’s family, friends and admirers. Growing up in 30s/40s Missouri and paving his way into a white-dominated industry, Berry faced a lifetime of racist bullshit. White promoters and DJs would ditch his breakout his Maybellene once they find out that the man was black.

“It’s fairly standard fare for a music doc, but it’s superbly put together.”

The young rock&roll master was both smashing the musical status quo (Nile Rodgers credits him with pioneering the use of guitars like a percussive instrument) and recreating the identity of youth (Steve Van Zandt argues that Berry most likely created the concept of the teenager). As such, Chuck Berry faced a lot of resistance, aggression from white America and US lawmakers (his story has parallels, albeit on a smaller scale, with the war waged against Rev Martin Luther King Jr by J Edgar Hoover).

Copyright: MVD Entertainment Group

However, Berry was also accused of multiple accusations and convictions of being a sex offender. To be clear, this review is from a person who is both white and a man, so we’ll point you to this piece written by Hadley Freeman shortly after Berry’s death and this article written by Catherine Strong and Emma Rush (is it cowardly of me to not discuss this here? Maybe! Just doesn’t feel like my place given the two reasons stated above). While it is disappointing that “Chuck Berry” only mentions a couple of these incidents – and absolves Chuck Berry of any wrongdoing other than being a difficult, complicated genius whose career in music saved him from being a small-time crook – it does seem unfair to expect an authorised documentary with cooperation from his family to truly confront the issue of how we should deal with the fact that so many of our musical heroes behaved in a monstrous fashion.

“The colossal amount of interviews and footage crammed into just under two hours give us a huge, albeit inevitably-incomplete, look at a man who helped to define blues, soul, and rock.”

So really, it all comes back to the music and the story of Chuck Berry, which this documentary tells wonderfully. It looks at how Chuck Berry walked so that Elvis could run all the way to the bank (Elvis Presley can very much go fuck himself). E Street luminaries Van Zandt and Lofgren discuss, alongside footage of the incident, how “awful” it was playing on stage with their icon. We learn how Berry lifted his famous duck walk from the Marx Bros’ “Duck Soup” before it became a mainstay move for rockstar guitarists on stage (most notably AC/DC’s Angus Young).

Copyright: MVD Entertainment Group

We find out how Berry’s passion and art was fuelled by the horrors that black people experienced in American in the first half of the 20th century, complete with images of black people hanging from trees and bridges in Jim Crow America. The colossal amount of interviews and footage crammed into just under two hours give us a huge, albeit inevitably-incomplete, look at a man who helped to define blues, soul, and rock. There are dreamlike recreations of Berry’s history as remembered through his songs and his friends’ stories, and they’re terrible, but the interviews are gold dust if you’re a music fan.

“Chuck Berry” is billed alongside many others on the Greenpoint Film Festival. Due to COVID-19 the festival will be accessible through drive-in cinemas from August 1st to 9th in Brooklyn NY.  “Chuck Berry” will be premiering 07:00:pm on August1st at The Foundry.

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