08/18/06
Reviews by - Lindsay Planer

This week, As The Disc Spins is firing up the DVD player and screening Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll -- The Ultimate Collectors' Edition, the home video premier of the legendary Big Apple cable access show TV Party, and a pair Under Review bio-documentaries -- covering the respective careers of Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground.


Chuck Berry -- Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll: The Ultimate Collector's Edition (Image Entertainment)

The original impetus for producers Taylor Hackford and Stephanie Bennett to make the 1986 biopic Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll was to celebrate the life and music of rock's founding father upon the occasion of his 60th birthday. After a generally well-received theatrical run, the project resurfaced only to be released on home video back in the late '80s.

Fast-forward 20 years for the new four-DVD Ultimate Collectors' Edition. For starters, the movie has been flawlessly refurbished and outfitted with a new anamorphic widescreen video transfer accompanied by the viewer's choice of audio from the original Dolby stereo, or newly created Dolby 5.1 or DTS Surround mixes. Hope you carve out some time for the extras as there are nearly seven hours of behind-the-scenes bonuses that  stretch over three discs. Without question, this material is arguably as important as Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll itself.

While space prohibits the thorough analysis these added features rightly deserve, among the highlights are nearly an hour of rehearsals with Berry, supported by Keith Richards (guitar/vocals), Eric Clapton (guitar/vocals), Robert Cray (guitar/vocals), NRBQ's Joey Spampinato (bass/vocals), Chuck Levell (keyboards), Steve Jordan (drums) and Berry's original bandmate Johnnie Johnson (piano). There is even an outtake of Etta James (vocal) rehearsing her own partially-improvised reading of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man".

One of the most revealing sidebars is the hour-long Reluctant Movie Star -- dealing with the complexities of Chuck Berry the man and the artist. Another is the intimate Burnt Scrapbook section with Berry and Robbie Robertson going through some of Berry's memorabilia that was irreparably damaged and barely rescued from a fire in the '70s. The emotion is palpable as Berry talks about his various prison encounters and his earliest reflections on fame.

Yet another untapped goldmine is the four-plus hours of unedited conversations with rock 'n' roll Hall Of Famers Little Richard, Bo Diddley, The Everly Bros., Roy Orbison, as well as blues icon and bassist Willie Dixon. There are also lengthy and revealing interviews with Ahmet Ertegun -- the founder of the Atlantic record label -- and Sam Phillips, the creator of Sun Records.

Simply put, Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll -- The Ultimate Collectors' Edition is as much an authoritative history lesson of the formative days of rock as currently exists. As such, without exception it belongs in the library of every fan.

Glen O'Brien -- Glen O'Brien's TV PARTY (Brink DVD)

OK, there is an admitted soft spot in my heart for Glenn O'Brien's no budget and ultra lo-fi cable access show TV Party. As it was only shown live in New York City, folks like me tuned-in and inevitably got turned-on via the barely-viewable VHS tapes.  This initial batch of three DVDs respectively feature the complete "Time & Make-up Show" (August 19, 1979), "Halloween Show" (October 30, 1979) and "Crusades Show" (February 17, 1981).

The program itself is a synthesis of "Larry King Live," "Jerry Springer Show" and "Saturday Night Live". The constant flow of action on and off camera provide an unbridled surrealism, leaving the distinct impression that no matter how many times you watch and re-watch, you'll never catch it all.

Some of the most vivid images are of celebs -- such as the semi-retired musician Robert Fripp or visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat -- taking calls from viewers. Equally memorable are the duo of Fifi & Claude who unleash a unique brand of accordion and guitar punk rock. There are extremely rare musical performances, ranging from a ragged-but-right rendition of "The Tide Is High" from Blondie, to Walter Steding's relatively obscure one-man band on "The Secret Spy". Another extra worth the price of admission in and of itself is the decidedly laid back conversation with George Clinton of P-Funk fame.
 
The sonic and visual quality are as good as it gets with a definite step-up from the old homemade copies of copies of copies of someone else's video tapes. That said, TV Party was never known for high-def production values. The show was shot and broadcast in a sort of sepia tone that isn't completely black-and-white but certainly not color either. The sound squeaks with feedback and sometimes guests are inaudible because they are not properly outfitted with working microphones.

Still, the years have treated these time capsules well and the seeming 'flaws' have become more like beauty marks or imperfections on fine leather. They are proof that there was honest-to-goodness 'reality television' back in the day when reality was not such a demoralizing or degrading prospect. Indeed, those were the days.

Captain Beefheart -- Under Review (Sexy Intellectual)
Velvet Underground-- Under Review (Sexy Intellectual)

Although unauthorized by the artists themselves, the Under Review DVD series brings to light the stories behind a diverse range of musicians. Two of the most recent installments provide what are essentially the first respective multi-media biographies of Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground. 

Captain Beefheart -- the nom de plume of Don Van Vliet -- is practically the only member of the extensive Magic Band personnel that doesn’t contribute to this nearly two-hour career overview. Yet, thanks to invaluable insight and commentary by John French, Mark Boston, Jeff Moris Tepper, Elliot Ingber, Ira Ingber, Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Gary Marker, Eric Drew Feldman and Gary Lucas, viewers are guided through the criminally misunderstood genius of Captain Beefheart.

The Magic Band blended unrefined blues and blue-eyed soul with complex and often Dada-esque lyrics. The atonal chord changes and highly advanced arrangements allowed Beefheart and company to push the boundaries of rock into a malleable form of sonic art that truly defies categorization. There are a host of never-before compiled video clips that are excerpted, but sadly not presented in their entirety. That, and of course the absence of the man himself, are the only drawbacks in this fascinating rockumentary.

Even while the Velvet Underground (VU) were critics darlings, producing the likes of Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico, they never garnered more than a devout cult following Stateside. However, there would have been no punk, underground or alternative scenes without them. VU members Moe Tucker, Doug Yule and Billy Name are joined by music journalists Robert Christgau, Clinton Heylin and Malcolm Dome to try and unravel the palpable mystique that surrounded the band.

While on the subject of tunes, again don't look for complete performances. But, viewers will find rarely seen live and studio footage of "Sunday Morning," "All Tomorrow's Parties," "Heroin," White Light/White Heat," Pale Blue Eyes," "Sweet Jane," and a few other key entries in the VU's commanding legacy. The extracts of unissued promotional films and clips from Andy Warhol's private archives likewise weave a visual tapestry capturing the mood of the era. 

Whether you are a true student of pop, a classic rock aficionado or simply a curious fan, Under Review offers a touchstone into a much greater appreciation of Beefheart and the VU.
Lindsay Planer is a freelance journalist and technical producer at WBT AM/FM in Charlotte, NC. He is a regular contributor to All Music Guide, CrutchfieldAdvisor.com and Gaston Gazette. Comments and questions can be sent to <asthediscspins@earthlink.net>.
 

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