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How Chuck Berry Got an All-Star Birthday Party on ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll’

One of the most highly regarded rock documentaries got its start on Oct. 16, 1986, when director Taylor Hackford and musical producer Keith Richards filmed the two concerts held for the all-star Chuck Berry tribute Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll in St. Louis.

Featuring Berry performing a set full of classic hits alongside a passel of rock royalty (including Eric Clapton, Richards, Joe Walsh, Linda Ronstadt and Etta James) as well as a few younger artists influenced by Berry’s work (such as Julian Lennon and Robert Cray), Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll sparked a new wave of appreciation for his music, while spinning off a successful soundtrack album.

The backup band Richards assembled included Rolling Stones sidemen Chuck Leavell and Bobby Keys and, perhaps most importantly, Johnnie Johnson, who played piano on many of Berry’s definitive recordings. In one scene, Richards notes that Berry’s style of playing, which influenced all of rock guitar playing, came as a result of trying to work out Johnson’s piano parts on guitar.

The songs were the movie’s main draw for most, but Hackford earned raves for offering filmgoers a peek into Chuck Berry’s private life and creative process. Bruce Springsteen, John Lennon and other legends offer testimonials – while Richards, his No. 1 fan, displays his complex love-hate relationship with Berry. As critic Robert Christgau put it at the time, it’s “a wickedly funny and moving rock-doc classic, exposing Berry the money-grubbing control freak without devaluing his genius in the process.”

The film saw release a little less than a year after the concerts were held, arriving in theaters on Oct. 9, 1987. The concerts were timed to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday on Oct. 18, 1986.

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