DVD Review: Chuck Berry/Neil Young
By Glenn Abel
"Better to burn out than to fade away" sounds like a hip plan, but there is plenty to be said for the long run.
The careers of Chuck Berry and Neil Young, two big shots from rock's first half century, are celebrated in a pair of remarkable new DVD sets: "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" and "Heart of Gold."
The films' musically savvy directors, both Oscar winners, understand and embrace the DVD medium, so their theatrical releases were jumping-off points. The DVDs come packed with content and context -- graceful flirtations with overkill. Taylor Hackford mixed new interviews with extra footage recycled from his 1987 Berry movie, while Jonathan Demme shot his recent Young concert film with DVD extras in the master plan.
Hackford ("Ray") uses four discs to chronicle not only the tense days leading up to Berry's all-star 60th birthday concert but also the surreal conditions under which "Hail!" was produced. Not surprisingly, the madness tracks back to the brown-eyed handsome man who would run wild as rock's first outlaw.
"Chuck Berry has always been trouble," Hackford says in his new introduction to the film. "There's always tension." Later, the director calls Berry "a scorpion," without hesitation but not entirely without affection.
Hackford promises "a better-quality film than the original" and delivers. The HD-rendered images look fine despite the inevitable stage-light softness and grain. Flesh tones are especially good. (Aspect ratio is 1.78:1 with the 16x9 upgrade.)
The DTS audio comes with more bottom and presence than the Dolby 5.1, but both are outstanding surround tracks: drums pounce out of the speakers; the piano has plenty of roll and character; and, of course, the guitars sound just like ringing a bell.
On Disc 2, Hackford devotes an hour of new interviews to "Hail!" production war stories. "You need to know some of the things that went on," he tells viewers with a grave look. The producers still seem shell-shocked by the experience, which included Berry's daily holdouts for more money and a gang-rape scare during a prison visit.
Keith Richards, whose Rolling Stones started out playing Berry covers, served as musical director for the 1986 concert in Berry's hometown of St. Louis. Richards moans that his guitar hero was "even more headaches than Mick Jagger." Berry and Richards' hard-edged "alpha male thing" provided the soul of the movie, Hackford says.
Despite the grief, Richards says he loves Berry and was proud to "serve Chuck up with a good band." Having guest star Eric Clapton on hand didn't hurt. Hackford's Disc 2 treasures include Clapton, Richards and piano man Johnnie Johnson searing the blues "Mean Old World."
Johnson, who helped create most of Berry's hits, was recruited for the show while working as a bus driver. In another sterling extra, the old partners duet on a medley of 1940s standards such as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." "I love you Johnny," Berry tells his piano man, but the sleepy-eyed Johnson doesn't seem to buy it.
Image has released "Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" in two editions: four discs (retail $49.99) and two ($29.99). There's plenty to recommend the full-boat but the double-DVD set will suit most people. Hackford introduces each segment of the extras, a nice touch.
Other extras of note on Discs 3 and 4:
You've probably heard it as many times as the title song, but every word is true: "Neil Young: Heart of Gold" is sensational. A hall of fame concert film.
Jonathan Demme, a shameless fan, filmed Young and his extended family of musicians as they premiered "Prairie Wind" in Nashville. The documentary material mostly is left to the DVD extras, making "Heart of Gold" a purely musical affair.
Demme fashioned his film "as a dream concert ... being dreamt by Neil ... a narrative of the heart." The stealth emotional impact was by design, Young says: "They think they're watching a concert and they come out wondering what happened."
The songs (and film) were touched by Young's near-fatal aneurysm and his father's death. But the overarching vibe is one of family, musical tradition and rebirth. Once the heavy lifting is done, some serious fun breaks out as Young reprises his famous songs recorded in Music City.
Paramount has released "Heart of Gold" in a double-disc set (retail $29.99). Images (1:85.1) and especially audio (DTS, Dolby) are first rate.
The main bonus feature is a three-part rehearsal diary narrated by Demme, who was "really nervous" about running afoul of Young, whom he calls an "exacto but compassionate general."
Young says their project was "kind of a natural collaboration. ... Jonathan's sensitivity to music is well known." The "Silence of the Lambs" director's credits include the Talking Heads concert film "Stop Making Sense" and "Storefront (Robin) Hitchcock."
Young hates distractions, so Demme worked with eight fixed cameras. A Steadicam came into play once, on "Comes a Time." Young and Demme made the Steadicam operator part of the rehearsals, to minimize his impact. "You can freak the music out and it's gone just like that," Young says.
Other extras feature chats with Young and his bandmates (done in an old car); a 1971 TV performance of "The Needle and the Damage Done"; and a visit with the guitar tech, who shows off Young's Martin that once belonged to Hank Williams.
"Let's Rock Again!" tells the story of Joe Strummer, a man who ended up having to remind the world that "I was in the Clash."
"I've had the full experience, from hero to zero," he said. "It's good for the soul." A few months later, the 50-year-old Strummer was dead, victim of an undetected heart defect.
Dick Rude's film, shot in 2001 and 2002, followed the onetime punk star and his new band, the Mescaleros, as they toured the States and Japan. The film and DVD extras show Strummer signing endless autographs while listening to fans tell how he changed their lives. "Everybody's got a story to tell," Strummer explains. "You can't hurry them along." Rude calls his old friend "a born sweetheart."
Strummer took a decade off after the Clash went supernova. His young band was a hard sell, but the music was good and his shows made fans happy with "nuggets from the past." The main DVD extra is a treat: Strummer and the boys working through "The Harder They Come" and dub-era Clash songs like "Armagideon Time."
Director Rude did a 15-minute Q&A session at the Tribeca film festival, included here as an extra. He tells the audience it was "very difficult for me to cut this movie" after Strummer died.
Other extras have Strummer talking about his life on the road. "Performing is partly joy and partly terror, and you have to be able to deal with both emotions. It takes a lot of spirit to perform."
"He was struggling with rebuilding his confidence," Rude says. "There was definitely a sense of insecurity."
One of the last clips has Strummer considering the death of another punk star, Joey Ramone: "It doesn't seems real. ... He was one of the best."
Image has released "Let's Rock Again!" as a single disc (retail $19.99). Images are full-screen; audio is in stereo. The presentation is good enough, despite some here-and-there synch problems.
Jtrummer's death was a stunner, but no one was surprised when Townes Van Zandt fell at the age of 52. Margaret Brown's "Be Here to Love Me" considers the life of the Texas songwriter, known for "Pancho and Lefty" and his passion for drugs and booze.
The thoughtful film, commentary and supporting extras make this disc essential for anyone who cares about the songs. Palm Pictures has released the docu on a single DVD ($24.98). Audio is in stereo.
Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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