“Bang! The Bert Berns Story”
Music! Music! Music!
“Bang! The Bert Berns Story” is narrated by musician and actor Steven Van Zandt and the first part is interesting in that it is not at all interesting as compared with Berns’ later years. His early years are somewhat pedestrian and it almost seems that he willed himself to be creative so he could escape his ordinary background.
Growing up in the Bronx, Berns was exposed to a wide variety of music in his youth and Manhattan was nearby, which meant that that there were plenty music publishers. aplenty were available to reject him. Eventually one recognized his potential and he began working as a songwriter in 1961 and his first hit came in the following year. Among his earliest hits, the most famous is probably “Twist and Shout,” which he co-wrote. He quickly learned about the power of record producers, and realized his own limitations as a singer so Berns became a producer as for a variety of labels.
That led to further opportunities with the famed Atlantic Records. By the time Berns came along, the label was in need of hits, and Berns delivered. His titles included Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” which he produced, though he did not share in the writing of the latter. The records he made influenced young British bands like the Beatles, who recorded their own version of “Twist and Shout,” and the Rolling Stones (“Everybody Needs Somebody To Love” ).
As Berns’ career skyrocketed so did his reputation. Those interviewed in the documentary all speak warmly about their working relationships.(But then he co-directed this with his son so of course we hear only good things). Berns preferred encouraging his recording artists rather than demeaning them or shouting at them, and helped to produce good recordings.
The documentary is filled with great stories. Berns befriended a good variety of people in his lifetime, and his more criminally minded friends proved to be extremely helpful when it came to certain business dealings — all of which is remembered in an amusing tone. As a child, Berns began suffering from a heart condition, which would plague him periodically through the years and eventually cut his life short. His musical career lasted less than ten years and it is quite amazing to see how deeply the music he wrote and/or produced still continues to resonate.
Berns was known in some musical circles as “the white soul brother” and I learned that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was in awe of his songwriting talent. Janis Joplin covered “Piece of My Heart” and caught all its heartbreak. “Hang on Sloopy” has been loved by many through the years and other notable songs include “Here Comes the Night, ” “Cry Baby,” and “Cry to Me.” He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but many are still unaware of Bert Berns, a Jewish kid from the Bronx who lived a fast and furious life and who died 1967 at the age of 38.
During his youth, Berns spent years in isolation after rheumatic fever scarred his heart. He used the time to learn to play piano and guitar. Early on, he discovered the high cost of making a mark in the music business— it was a business filled with power plays, violence, pay-offs, and more. We see the ease with which the creative people involved celebrate the rock & pop vitality of his songs. We hear from greats including Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Ben King, Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid, Solomon Burke and others.
His career only spanned eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image. In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo and he brought his love of Latin rhythms into his music. He began working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm and wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay that eventually caught the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music.
The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.
We hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. He nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records and he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.
His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it.