Episode 121- Chuck Berry Documentarian Jon Brewer
Santa may be taking a break between Christmas and New Year’s, but we refuse to sit back in our respective La-Z-Boy recliners, enjoying the holiday gifts we received. (Never triple dog dare us to eat the contents of an entire popcorn tin in one sitting. We’ll do it, even if it means choking down the boring, plain popcorn third of it.) Sure, Luke could be tearing through an unauthorized book documenting the making of Manimal, or Heidi could be trying out the latest exercise craze: Construction Site Cardio (patent and bodily harm waiver pending). But you deserve new content, and we won’t let you down!
For this week’s episode, we spoke with documentarian Jon Brewer. And while he’s a documentary director and producer for some truly fascinating subjects in music, he was also a manager of acts and artists for decades. One of his latest projects is Chuck Berry: the King of Rock n’ Roll, a documentary film about an absolute legend. Jon chatted with us about what inspired him to take on his subject, the process of making the movie, and what kind of lasting influence Chuck Berry had on rock and roll.
It’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ve heard Chuck Berry sing at least once this past week, whether you realize it or not. If you’ve had any Christmas radio station on, or watched Home Alone, you’ve heard him sing the original and best version of “Run Rudolph Run.” (Sorry, Bruce and the E Street Band — your version is a very close second, but all rockers have to give credit where credit is due.) But, of course, that song is a blip on the Chuck Berry radar. With songs like “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “No Particular Place to Go,” Berry’s status as the father of rock and roll is well established. Some even argue that he should get “king” status instead of Elvis, and after hearing from Jon about all of the influences Berry had on rock acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, you might be convinced.
Jon has made some influential documentaries about musicians (not to name drop, but they include Mick Ronson, Guns n’ Roses and Jimi Hendrix), but when the time came for him to work on a movie for Chuck Berry he had several obstacles in his path. Jon explained how and why he was the only person to whom Berry’s widow, Themetta, agreed to grant an interview about her husband. Along with learning why Berry could be a particularly tricky documentary subject, Jon also shared some fascinating stories about the role race played in Berry’s radio play and how working the stage and shows helped bring his Black and white audiences together to rock out to his unforgettable guitar riffs.
It wasn’t all great performances and adoration — Chuck Berry had his share of controversy and Jon addressed that in our conversation. Jon also made some really thought-provoking statements about Berry’s role in the creation and perception of the American teenager in the 50s and early 60s. And Berry was a whiz at creating brand-new words that became part of the rock and roll vernacular. Of course, we’re not going to give anything away here. The mystery will be kept alive until you listen to this week’s episode!
While the main focus of our conversation with Jon was about his documentary, he shared with us his insights about how the music business has changed through the decades. He also shared some great stories about how R&B influenced rock, including a great story about how Ringo Starr got his hands on jukebox records from the American South. (And you know we’re fans of any Ringo stories.)
In other words, Jon provided us with some great insider glimpses into the world of music, in general, and the world of Chuck Berry, specifically. If you’d like to learn more about Chuck Berry, definitely watch Jon’s great documentary, Chuck Berry: the King of Rock n’ Roll, wherever you like to stream movies. You can also follow Jon on Twitter and Chuck Berry’s family has an official Facebook page. Be sure to check them all out, and then tell Tchaikovsky the news.