Editor’s Note: Bang! The Bert Berns Story opens in limited theatrical release today, April 26, 2017.
Bert Berns, a major figure in the early 1960s American pop and R&B recording scene, was certainly unsung, but it would be a stretch to call him a hero. A musical childhood lead to a fascination with Latin and Cuban music, which in turn lead him to co-write the classic “Twist and Shout,” sung first by The Top Notes and produced by a young Phil Spector in 1961. Angry at what he felt was a hack job by Spector, Berns would go on to produce the Isley Brother’s version a year later, a major hit. After a few years of freelancing, Berns wound up at Atlantic Records, and his R&B hits were frequently covered by British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. By the mid 1960s, Berns had his own label, Bang! Records. But he also had a chaotic life marred by bad business deals and associations with the mob, and after he died at age 38 in 1967, he was quickly forgotten by an industry eager for the future and often ignorant of the past.
All rock docs rely on the music to make their point, but Bang! has one of the best soundtracks of any modern documentary. Once you hear song after song after song produced by Berns, from “Tell Him” to “Under the Boardwalk” to “Here Comes the Night” to “Brown Eyed Girl,” you realize what kind of man Berns was.
Bang! The Bert Berns Story was conceived of and directed by Berns’ son Brett, who has happily chosen what comes very close to a warts-and-all portrayal of his dad. There are a few excuses for Berns’ outlandish behavior peppered here and there, but it’s tempered by blunt admissions of outright criminal activity. Especially good are the moments where Berns’ widow Ilene insists that her late husband was merely friends with people who just happened to coincidentally be major players in the mafia.
Bert Berns was stricken with rheumatic fever in his early teens, and the subsequent heart damage sentenced him to a short life. He lived for nearly two decades past what doctors had predicted, the documentary declares, all the while showing photo after photo of Bert drinking and smoking and partying like the proverbial rock star. He certainly didn’t look the part, his goofy grin topped with a sloppy and somewhat sparse pompadour, but his introduction of Afro-Cuban elements into American pop and R&B music made him cool. Many of the black musicians who worked with him called him a “white soul brother.”
Chock full of interviews, Bang! takes us chronologically through Berns’ life, making it clear that the talented producer of the early 60s had become a stressed-out, jaded man with unfortunate friends by the time of his death. Those who worked with him early on, like Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid and Solomon Burke, note his problems but still proclaim their love, while those who only knew him at the end still seem taken aback all these years later at how frenetic, desperate and chaotic his life had become. Notably, those who never worked with him, like Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, are those most compelled to praise Berns’ genius.
Chock full of interviews, Bang! takes us chronologically through Berns’ life, making it clear that the talented producer of the early 60s had become a stressed-out, jaded man with unfortunate friends by the time of his death.
All rock docs rely on the music to make their point, but Bang! has one of the best soundtracks of any modern documentary. Once you hear song after song after song produced by Berns, from “Tell Him” to “Under the Boardwalk” to “Here Comes the Night” to “Brown Eyed Girl,” you realize what kind of man Berns was. Bang! does fantastic work with clips from archival concert and television performances as well as the recordings themselves, coupled with tons of behind-the-scenes photos, 45s, and advertising.
There’s only one real flaw: the glossing over of Berns’ issues with one of his last big stars on Bang! Records, Neil Diamond. The two had a falling out over what singles to release, and Berns brought in his good friend, mob boss Tommy Eboli, to scare Diamond into compliance. Diamond refused. He took Berns to court, which narration tells us was a betrayal. Strangely, the doc has no problem acknowledging that Berns heavily mismanaged Van Morrison, also one of his last big recording stars. But Van Morrison cooperated with the documentary, and one gets the impression that Diamond did not, leading to a couple of clumsy moments and placeholder music where Diamond’s singles with Bang! Records should have been.
Narration, provided ably by guitarist-actor Steven Van Zandt, is heavily based on Joel Selvin’s book Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, which went a long way toward bringing Berns’ legacy back into pop culture consciousness. This documentary and Berns’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just last year will do the same, and it’s about time.
Alternately harrowing and entertaining, Bang! The Bert Berns Story takes us through the life of the immensely influential but clearly troubled songwriter and producer, using tons of archival footage, photographs, recordings, and interviews to piece together a long-forgotten part of our musical history.