Bertrand Russell “Bert” Berns was a composer who wrote pop hits and soul classics, from “Hang on Sloopy” and “I Want Candy” to “Here Comes the Night,” “Cry Baby” and “Piece of My Heart.”
As a producer, he had a hand in making Van Morrison, Cissy Houston, Solomon Burke and Neil Diamond stars.
But despite having an off-Broadway stage musical revue built around his songs, despite the occasional box set collection of his work and a recent biography, he’s little known outside of pop music cognoscenti like, say, Springsteen guitarist/singer “Little” Steven Van Sant, who narrates a new documentary about Berns’ life and work.
“BANG! The Bert Berns Story” takes its title from Berns’ 1960s record label, where Morrison broke out as a solo artist, where Diamond established himself not just as a songwriter, but as a SINGER/songwriter. The film, built around Joel Selvin’s biography of Berns, takes us from Berns’ Bronx childhood, where rheumatic fever scarred his heart and kept him indoors, learning to play piano and guitar, through his star-crossed adulthood, sneaking into the recording business, dominating it, and then dying too young to really enjoy the fruits of his years of frantic creation.
Berns was a Jewish boy who caught the Cuban music bug in the ’50s, went to Cuba, came back and found a way to infuse those rhythms into American pop. He wrote the novelty charmer, “A Little Bit of Soap,” hit the charts again with the co-written “Twist and Shout,” and then scored with the girl group classic “Tell Him.”
Paul McCartney testifies to the glories of “Twist and Shout,” which The Beatles turned into a smash — after the Isley Brothers had already scored with it. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones laughs in awe at the bluesy Bronx Jew whose songs were favorites for the Stones to cover early in their career.
Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid and Van Morrison remember Berns’ nurturing ways in the studio.
But “BANG!” isn’t shy about looking at the dark side. Berns was in a business with brutally sharp elbows, and he learned quickly to give as good as he got. The great Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler comes off as a greedy, unethical bully in accounts of Berns’ years with that premiere jazz and soul label. And that shaped Berns’ approach to the business as well.
Never a wise guy, Berns wasn’t shy about partnering with wise guys and chumming around with “made men,” which made business dealings with him…interesting. Ask Neil Diamond about that, because the movie (co-directed by Berns’ son Brett) doesn’t dare. Diamond does not appear on camera and the mob threats are mostly just implied.
Berns married a go go dancer, Ilene, who had a hand in his business and is no shrink-away-from-a-fight type herself.
Still, it all comes back around to the songs, many with “Bert’s trademark,” Van Sant narrates, this “edge of despair” feeling that came out of him. When he wrote “Piece of My Heart,” he was talking about his own damaged heart, but Erma Franklin and then Janis Joplin rendered it into a harrowing classic, full of urgency and romantic desperation.
Yeah, he cooked up “I Want Candy” and “Hang on Sloopy” and “Twist and Shout” was basically “La Bamba” with new lyrics (not mentioned in the movie). But Berns’ best work was as “the white soul brother” who made sure his artists sang his songs “the way HE meant it,” with all the passion and hunger of a man who knew he wouldn’t live long, but meant to make his mark while he did.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity
Cast: Paul McCartney, Cissy Houston, Brenda Reid, Ilene Berns, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, Keith Richard
Credits: Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles, written by Joel Selvin. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:35