While Taylor Hackford is best known for directing dramas like An Officer and a Gentleman, The Devil's Advocate and Ray, his documentaries may be some of his most interesting work. After getting his start as an investigative reporter for public television in Los Angeles, the silver-bearded cineaste went on to helm 1987's Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll and construct 1996's award-winning When We Were Kings. Chuck Berry arrives in stores today on DVD, having been cleaned up and compiled with hours of extras to make a formidable collector's edition. In speaking with Hackford about the film, TVGuide.com found out that capturing the rock icon was no easy task.
TVGuide.com: There's so much material in the Chuck Berry DVD set it's abundantly clear that a lot of time and care went in to putting it together.
Taylor Hackford: The reason I did this is because with director's-edition DVDs you truly can tell the stories that weren't told originally. In this instance it's particularly unique because I signed on to do a film celebrating Chuck Berry's 60th birthday, so I cut the film in to a celebration. I love Chuck Berry and I think he's a crucially important artist in American culture; however, I was quite surprised, as was everyone else, that he, who was both a producer [of the DVD] and was being celebrated, would do as many things as possible to sabotage the process. That, of course, was never part of the original film, but I find that fascinating as a character study. This is a very complex, very complicated man. This DVD presents that more clearly than simply the feature film could.
TVGuide.com: Were you ever conflicted about showing Berry's flaws and/or concerned about how it would impact his legacy?
Hackford: There has been a lot of reportage about Chuck Berry through the years. He has done three jail terms. He's a notorious figure. I hope that it's abundantly clear from my film that I love Chuck Berry. He has real import to me. He opened himself up to me and gave me a huge amount, and I'm deeply grateful. However, I feel it is my job as an artist to reveal who he is.
TVGuide.com: A lot of that came out during Berry's clashes with Keith Richards, who was the birthday concert's music producer.
Hackford: That's really what I made the film about. I didn't know what it was going to be about, going in. I have supreme respect for Keith. Chuck did everything possible to get him to run, and Keith stood his ground. But despite Chuck's behavior, Keith was determined to celebrate the man and that's fascinating to watch.
TVGuide.com: There are also a lot of interview extras with some of the other founders of rock, people like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Hackford: It seemed like a great opportunity while I was doing the film to talk to them not only about Chuck, but about their own music. I wanted to know what they had in mind back then and exactly how this art form called rock and roll came about. So now, rather than reading about them in books, you can actually see them and hear them articulate, in their own words, what they were going after.
TVGuide.com: Berry will turn 80 in October. Have you spoken with him lately? Did you talk to him about the DVD release?
Hackford: Yeah, I talked with him, but obviously, he didn't have any part [in making] the DVD. Listen, the reality of what I say in this is that Chuck is a great artist, but I'm not so sure he realizes that. He takes as much pride in himself as a businessman as he does as an artist. I mean, there were some songs from the concert that I wanted to include on the DVD, but this did not have a big budget. I basically put this together myself. So I called Chuck up and said I would love to include those songs and would pay something I thought was difficult for me but commensurate with the budget we had. He laughed at me. That's just the way Chuck is.
TVGuide.com: With Ray you also attempted to provide a better understanding of a great musician. Why does this subject matter interest you?
Hackford: Well, the main thing is that I love music. Another thing, though, is that I make films about working-class people. I always do. That's what interests me; music is the most plebian of art forms. It comes from the street. I always think there's something great about artists who have immense talent and have to overcome having no money and, in Ray Charles' case, segregation and blindness. To me, the fact that Ray Charles was able to attain his greatness is an amazing story and inherently dramatic.
However, with Ray, that movie had to be told in the form of a narrative film; Chuck Berry's story was better served in a documentary. After I did When We Were Kings, I was offered the feature film Ali. I said, "I already did it." There's no movie star bigger than Muhammad Ali. Same thing with Chuck Berry nobody is going to be able to play him the way he does. Luckily, with Ray, Jamie Foxx did a brilliant job, so it can happen, but with Kings and Chuck Berry I was lucky enough to get the subjects in their prime.
TVGuide.com: What are you currently working on? Are there any plans to once again throw the spotlight on another music legend?
Hackford: I'm looking. At this moment, I don't have anyone per se [in mind] for a music film. Right now, the film I'm working on is about Julia "Butterfly" Hill, a young 23-year-old woman who went up in a redwood tree and stayed there for two years to protest the clear-cutting of the oldest living things on earth. I think it's a great story and an important story considering where the world is today. But if you tell that to Hollywood executives, their eyes roll up into their heads. We'll see if I'm successful. It took me 15 years to get Ray made. I'm hoping this won't take quite that long.