A round-up of recent rock DVDs:
Chuck Berry is the King of rock & roll. Fighting words down here in Elvislandia, to be sure. But don't dig me, listen to the Killer himself: "He's the King of rock & roll. My Mama even said that ..." says Jerry Lee Lewis early in Taylor Hackford's 1987 film, Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll (Image Entertainment). Expanded to four discs, Hail! Hail! serves as a retrospective of Chuck Berry's life and music, as curated by the O.G. singer-songwriter's number one fan, Keith Richards. Aside from the performances at St. Louis' Fox Theatre, the documentary's highlights are reminiscences with Berry's fellow hard-bitten rock pioneers Little Richard and Bo Diddley, a travelogue back to the divey Cosmopolitan Club where Berry got his start as part of the late Johnnie Johnson's band, and fleeting glimpses of the guitar legend's family. By the time one gets to the extras, an indelible portrait of a complex genius emerges. This understanding is troubled by Disc Two's interviews with the filmmakers, as their statements repeatedly foreground their whiteness in relation to the blackness of Berry and his environment -- plus they're betrayed by ideals of the inscrutable Negro. Hail! Hail! makes plain the degree to which rock & roll remains a key battleground in America's culture wars.
Afro-punk is another vital rock history doc -- this time, directed by young black NYC filmmaker James Spooner -- which interrogates, via punk subculture, what has befallen black legacies in the genre since the heyday of Berry, Little Richard et al. Taking Patti Smith's controversial "Rock 'N' Roll Nigger" as departure point, the film debunks the power of white hipsters to choose "beat" lifestyles versus the notion that black interest in rock communities is motivated by the desire to locate belonging on the American scene. Lacking the epic scope that a Hollywood director and Rolling Stone Richards can afford, Spooner adheres faithfully to punk's DIY ethic, examining the quotidian lives of young black Americans across the Great Divide as complicated by their involvement in various punk scenes. Noted NYC musicians Tamar-Kali and Cipher's frontman Moe Mitchell are shown to have made peace with their "flyboy in the buttermilk" status on the hardcore scene by embracing the full breadth of their African heritage. Overall, the film is a priceless study of radical forms of black subjectivity that rarely get any spotlight.
The Clash is rightly regarded by many as the greatest band to emerge from the original 1970s punk era. Of course, the band was also beset by complicated racial attitudes, as its big hit "Rock the Casbah" and "White Riot" clearly attest. As the son of a British diplomat, the late Joe Strummer may have been one of the most fascinating and problematic punk icons, period. Newly reissued films Rude Boy (Epic/Legacy) -- released for the first time in the US, some of its first frames linger lovingly on anti-black graffiti invoking the Klan, sound-tracked to a bouncy reggae beat with narrative that generally plays out against mid-'70s racial tensions in the UK -- and Joe Strummer: Let's Rock Again! (Dick Rude/Image) suitably curate his rock legacy.
New York doll (Visual Entertainment) focuses primarily on that underrated band's late bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane. To most in the know, the lamented and benighted early '70s glam/garage rockers New York Dolls -- the most famous members being David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter) and the late Johnny Thunders -- were the essential catalyst for punk on both sides of the Pond. And a primary influence on the Clash. The DVD traces the tragic downward spiral of Kane, who wound up a Mormon librarian in LA prior to his final, glorious bow at 2004's Meltdown Festival curated by number one fan Morrissey. The Dolls' new album is out now.
Johnny Cash is also remembered with the release of Man in Black: Johnny Cash live in Denmark 1971 (CMV/Legacy) on DVD. Cash may not have been of color (rumors of Native American blood long since put to rest) but his iconicity as the Man in Black was a big enough tent to house a great interpreter of multiracial Americana, a devout Christian, a strong advocate for native rights and an incendiary rebel stance fit to inspire legions of future outlaws.
Bonus track: RIP Arthur Lee; born and died Memphis, TN, aged 61. Although primarily remembered for his genius Summer of Love song cycle Forever Changes, Lee's band Love also released the 1960's wildest Top 40 single, "7 and 7 Is" -- ending with an atom bomb exploding, it's regarded as the first punk song. See 2003's The Forever Changes Concert DVD for all of Lee's sonic facets.