During his all-too-short lifetime, Bert Berns never received the kind of fame afforded many of his contemporaries on the New York music scene such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, or Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Yet, across the pond, young men like Paul McCartney and Keith Richards were taking notice whenever they saw the Berns imprimatur on one of their favorite 45s. McCartney and Richards are just two of the luminaries who lined up to salute the songwriter-producer-entrepreneur, who died in 1967 at 38 years old, in the 2016 documentary Bang: The Bert Berns Story. Bang, the name of Berns’ record label, was actually an acronym for its founders – B(ert Berns), A(hmet Ertegun), N(esuhi Ertegun) and G(erald “Jerry” Wexler) – but none of those esteemed gentlemen defined the company and its thrilling sounds the way the colorful Berns did. Bang is a most appropriate title, too, for the film directed by Bert’s son Brett Berns and Bob Sarles, as it’s no staid documentary. The mob may have played a role in Bert Berns’ life and career – but his greatest works have survived on the merits of the music.
“Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” and “Piece of My Heart” are among the songs penned by Berns. He produced “Baby I’m Yours,’ “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and championed the young Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry.” Those triumphs are among the many memorable melodies whose origins are explored in Bang: The Bert Berns Story alongside the too-unbelievable-to-be-true exploits of the film’s subject. E Street member, rock-and-roll champion, Underground Garage creator, and Sopranos actor Little Steven Van Zandt provides the voiceover narration in this gripping portrait of a talented musician and driven businessman who was in a race against the clock from his youngest days. Rheumatic fever as a child not only made him an outcast but led to the heart condition that would take his life. He nonetheless stuffed his 38 years with enough living for a couple of lifetimes. The sound of his records, fusing soul, blues, rock, and pop, owed a considerable debt to his fascination with African-American blues and soul as well as, crucially, Latin dance rhythms. The narration is written by Joel Selvin, author of the indispensable Berns biography Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues.
The dramatic true-life story is primarily told by those who knew Berns best including a terrifically candid Van Morrison (with whom he famously clashed), Cissy Houston, Ronald Isley, Betty Harris, Brenda Reid of The Exciters, and Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein, and Richard Gottehrer, a.k.a. The Strangeloves. Now sadly-departed talents Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and Ben E. King also weigh in on Berns’ legacy as well as artists inspired by him like McCartney and Richards. (Sadly, Berns’ widow Ilene, a key player in the film, also died in 2017 at the age of 73 after spending a lifetime continuing her husband’s work and legacy.) Unfortunately, Neil Diamond could not be persuaded to participate in the film, and his music was also unavailable. (Happily, most of Berns’ big hits are all heard.) Though Diamond’s absence isn’t directly addressed, Bang doesn’t shy away from why the superstar would still hold a grudge against Berns 50 years after his death.
The unwillingness to whitewash Berns’ life is one of the strongest assets of the documentary. A key figure is his manager and best friend (who also has died since the release of the film) Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, who speaks as if he entered the screen from the pages of a Damon Runyon story. DeNoia is an avuncular raconteur as he recounts some of the tamer but still unsettling misadventures he shared with his pal Bert in those halcyon days gone by. Indeed, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll – not to mention lawyers, guns, and money (apologies to Warren Zevon) – all figure into this compelling real-life New York noir.
Bang: The Bert Berns Story has just been released on DVD, available exclusively through the movie’s website. The DVD features audio options in both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround and offers over an hour of bonus interviews to bolster the 96-minute feature. While the directors wisely kept the choicest reminiscences in, these outtakes are worth the price of admission. Keith Richards, cigarette in hand, wheezily recalls thinking Berns had to be a black man and recounts the moment he discovered that Bert Berns and Bert Russell (the pseudonym he used on many of his most famous records) were one in the same. Ron Isley and Paul McCartney share their observations on “Twist and Shout” back to back. There’s more from Wassel who holds court with his tales of payola, record bootlegging, and music business greed. Ben E. King reflects on Berns’ loyalty, even when he was forced to confront Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun (both of whom play major roles in Berns’ story).
Solomon Burke offers some of the most touching moments in the bonus material. Describing Berns as “a songwriter, producer, and a fun guy,” and “a student in the studio,” the singer-minister-mortician spoke beautifully and animatedly of his old friend. Clearly there was light in Berns’ “dark soul.” Andrew Loog Oldham, Doug Morris (the songwriter turned Universal and now, Sony Music executive), and Mike Stoller are among the other major contributors, along with Brooks Arthur. The engineer on those seminal records by Van Morrison and Neil Diamond also produced Bang, and generously shares his recollections and insights. Other artists represented include Don Drowty of Dante and The Evergreens (“Ray Charles had nothing on Bert Berns,” he notes of Berns’ piano ability), Charlie Thomas of The Drifters, and arranger Garry Sherman, who points out the producer’s fondness for baritone saxophones. It’s all a fascinating complement to the film itself.
Bert Berns electrified the worlds of rock and soul with his irresistible Latin rhythms, keen melodic ear, and immense passion. A musical about his life (which played in New York in 2014) is still circling Broadway while his works continue to be reissued. Bang: The Bert Berns Story poignantly draws the curtain on a too-often-unsung personage who left a piece of his heart to make some of the most remarkable and beloved records in American pop history. A soundtrack album is available now on vinyl and digital platforms from Legacy Recordings, and the DVD can be purchased exclusively at the Bang webstore.