Thursday, September 6, 2012

Chuck Berry's Purity Level Of 99.92% (or Biopic #1)

The first biopic I ever took on (in 2004, after having written four other screenplays) was one for and about Chuck Berry, a living legend who most definitely should have his own biopic someday. The reason I was so adamant about telling Chuck Berry's story is that his has been a genuine and very rare sort of rock & roll life. No serious and tragic substance abuse, or bouts with depression. Just a solid (if stubborn) personality who rocked, and rocked, and continues to do so still. 
It's an 'American story' to be proud of and behold. That a black man, during a time of extreme segregation, broke through the airwaves with his brand of optimism and upbeat tunes. He was mistaken for being white because he enunciated his words in a manner so well-pronounced, prosperous even, to the unsuspecting ear. And how many times was that man (wrongly) imprisoned, for 'crimes' that are just laughable today? Society did not know how to handle Chuck Berry. True, he and his friends went on a robbery spree when he was 17, and he was imprisoned for three solid years for it. 
But he was the 'dangerous' type without posing actual danger to anyone, which makes him the epitome of rock and roll. He posed the danger that you might have a little too much fun if you listened to his music, or that he might have been too handsome and too attractive to impressionable white teenage girls –– and that he played a mean guitar (and still does.) And that's about all. Unlike the many acts before, or following him, who would turn to some kind of a substance to relax or to feel good, or to simply assume that so-called rock & roll image, posturing as a pseudo Rolling Stones-esque bad boy. Chuck Berry was 'bad' because he didn't try to be. 
His famous 'duck walk' was a happy accident, born out of his trousers needing to be pressed, and his trying to hide that fact on stage. Sometimes he'd show up for a gig, only to be turned away by the surprised booking agent who'd figured he was white (again, because of his sound) since the venue was restricted to 'whites only'. His bandmates figured he was only being stingy with his money (as he could and can be) because he'd bring along his own food when they travelled on the road; they didn't realize at the time why he did that. When they'd stop by a restaurant to eat at places where they inevitably had to go around back to get their food, Chuck Berry was choosing self-respect. He did not choose subjecting himself to intolerance. Instead, he'd eat his meals with dignity in the privacy of their vehicle. His heightened level of self-esteem, in any and all circumstances, was impressive.
But here's the stunning moment that clinches it all for me. Can you guess what famously endearing song Chuck Berry created within the confines of his jail cell one day? Where did his mind wander to, when he was (once again) unjustly imprisoned? While he was being punished, for the umpteenth time, Chuck Berry wrote one of the the brightest, most upbeat pronouncements of joy and freedom ever captured in song: 'You Never Can Tell'. 

Allow that sink in –– Chuck Berry wrote the eternally upbeat 'You Never Can Tell' while he was unjustly serving a jail sentence. 

They furnished off an apartment with a two-room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger-ale
But when Pierre found work
The little money comin' worked out well
"C'est la vie', say the old folks
It goes to show you never can tell!
They had a hi-fi phono, boy,
Did they let it blast
Seven hundred little records, all rock,rhythm and jazz...


You could not find the limit to this man's spirit if you tried. Even when his body was trapped, his heart and mind were off somewhere else: likely sitting in a brand new shiny convertible, with a pretty lady sitting beside him in the passenger seat (just as he would in the lyrics of any one of his great songs.)
That to me is rock & roll. 

And that's the kind of story I think people should have the chance to watch in biopics. Not the tragic figures, who succumb to drugs and depression and take their lives when they are faced with hard times. We should celebrate people like Chuck Berry, who didn't buy into any of it. When times were harsh, he transcended what was unjustly put in his way. He resisted and he prevailed –– and always on his own terms. 

And the man still packs up his gear and goes on stage, to this very day, to belt out his classic tunes and perform. Mind you, just so that he can collect his money and go home. Chuck Berry doesn't quite grasp what a big deal he is to so many people. He does what he does for the money, and he would tell you that. Because it's his job to perform, to show the people that duck walk they likely came to see. Because he's good at it, so why not keep doing it as long as he gets paid his money?  

His perspective is hilarious and it's also a triumph of the human spirit. And THAT is why Chuck Berry is pure rock and roll, with a purity level of 99.92%.
If it's of any interest to you, you can definitely get enjoyment from the wonderful Chuck Berry documentary, 'Hail, Hail Rock & Roll', the passion project that took Keith Richards from a state of blissful expectation to work on it alongside the man he idolized in order to share his story with others -- only to be gravely disappointed and disenchanted by just how ornery a man his subject could be! 

But Chuck Berry never claimed to be a great guy to hang out with, & he's never tried to sell anyone on that. Clearly, Keith Richards would be the rocker one might want to kick back with. And Richards was sorely mistaken thinking he might enjoy spending loads of time with the man he so admired. But Chuck Berry, with all of his quirks and idiosyncrasies, is all right with me.
And of course that Chuck Berry biopic is in the works. If not by me (I'd certainly be happy to discuss my passion for the project with Chuck Berry and his people :)) then by someone. 

And if not, it's a real shame. Because people ought to know more frequently about the triumphs of the human spirit and about our idols who've lived illustrious, empowered and very fruitful lives long enough to tell us all about it.
I might as well sign off here with the perpetually awe-inspiring 'You Never Can Tell', which (as you may have gathered by now) could not have been more aptly named. Because, once again: Chuck Berry wrote this song when he was unjustly confined to a jail cell. Enjoy :)