Film Review: BANG! The Bert Berns Story

Affectionate but still eye-opening look at songwriter and producer Bert Berns and his impact on 1960s rock music.
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Devoted rock fans learn all they can about groups and musicians, but often have no idea about the artists in the background who are actually shaping what they hear. The enigmatic Bert Berns had an outsized influence over a broad swath of 1960s popular music, from rhythm-and-blues to psychedelia, as this warm but honest documentary proves.

It can take years for details about these creative figures—producers like Phil Spector, songwriters like Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller—to emerge. Berns was an exception. Rumors swirled about him throughout his career, some nourished by the producer and songwriter himself.

Born in the Bronx, he contracted rheumatic fever as a youth. His weakened heart may have been a factor in his rebellious and sometimes reckless career choices. Berns allied himself with New York City nightclub gangsters, traveled to pre-revolutionary Cuba to learn about music (and run guns), and pursued a singing career that went nowhere.

Berns talked his way into a job writing songs for 50 dollars a week. His early efforts attracted little attention, but just about everyone he met described him as "cool." He was intense, in a hurry, enamored with Latin rhythms.

He placed "Twist and Shout" with Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler; Phil Spector covered the song with another group. Both versions were botched, teaching Berns how important a producer could be.

Berns produced "Cry to Me" for Solomon Burke, bringing his distinctively melancholic vision and sound to the soul singer. The Isley Brothers, who had a hit with "Shout" in 1959, resurrected "Twist and Shout" in 1962. It became a worldwide smash and, as Paul McCartney explains, helped define the sound of The Beatles.

Hit followed hit: The Exciters with "Tell Him," Garnet Mimms with "Cry Baby," songs for Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters. Berns became staff producer at Atlantic Records until he learned he was being stiffed out of royalties. He founded BANG Records, striking gold with "Hang on Sloopy" by The McCoys and "I Want Candy" by The Strangeloves.

Directors Brett Berns (Bert’s son) and Bob Sarles relate the story mostly through talking-head interviews (including luminaries like McCartney, Keith Richards, and Van Morrison) and some priceless archival footage. There's also a generous helping of phenomenal music: "Here Comes the Night," "Brown-Eyed Girl," "Piece of My Heart."

The documentary doesn't shy away from the songwriter's flaws, how he threw away money, provoked his enemies and generally indulged himself. But what the interviews show is that those who knew Berns loved him. Even Van Morrison, who castigated the producer for years after signing with BANG Records, comes to a sort of peace with him.

Perhaps no one loved him as much as his wife, Ilene Berns, whose reminiscences are simultaneously heartbreaking and jaw-dropping. "The mourning has not stopped," she says. She helps raise BANG! The Bert Berns Story above run-of-the-mill biopics.

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