Film Review: Bang! The Bert Berns Story
Bang! The Bert Berns Story (2016) Directors Brett Berns, Bob Sarles
Written by Belle McIntyre
This is the inside the music industry story that we did not get from The Soundtrack of Our Lives, the slick documentary about Clive Davis. This one is filled with colorful rogues, wheeler-dealers, low-life fixers, mobsters, and thoroughly outrageous characters, with a lot of nitty-gritty details about what and how things used to get done in the music biz of the 1960s. It also features testimonials and archival footage of many of the musicians and recording artists who worked with Bert Berns and whose careers benefitted hugely from his production savvy and songwriting gifts.
The fact that you have likely not heard of him or of BANG records is not surprising, since he died in 1967 at the age of 38, a result of childhood rheumatic fever. Remarkably, he didn’t even get his first job in the music business until he was 30, but by 31 he had his first hit, and over the next seven years, Berns wrote and/or produced some of the most iconic rock and soul songs ever recorded.
Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx, Berns was a sickly child and therefore missed out on many typical childhood and adolescent experiences and activities. As a result, he concentrated on what was available to him, especially music. He was attracted to Afro-Latin music from the start and learned to play the guitar. After a trip to Cuba, he tried with little success to perform and record his own songs, so instead he turned to writing for other musicians. He got a job in New York’s legendary Brill Building as a songwriter. His first hit was “A Little Bit of Soap” performed by the Jarmels.
As he continued to write more hits, Berns got more involved with record production and began to attract the notice of industry bigwigs Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Gerald (Jerry) Wexler at Atlantic Records. Scoring with Solomon Burke’s classic “Cry To Me” for the label, he joined Atlantic as staff producer in 1963. Two years later, he formed BANG Records, with the name being an acronym of all of their first names (Bert, Ahmet, Nesuhi, Gerald). Wexler became a close friend and mentor to Berns until a major falling out over money that underscores just how cutthroat the business really was.
On his way to the top, Berns mixed comfortably with all sorts of characters and seems to have left behind a trail of goodwill. He appears to have been a pretty decent guy, who treated everyone equally – the good, the bad and the unsavory. He collaborated or worked with practically everyone in the Atlantic/BANG milieu - from producers Leiber & Stoller to Solomon Burke (“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”), the Drifters (“Under the Boardwalk”) to Van Morrison (“Brown-Eyed Girl”).
Even those who never worked with him but who successfully recorded his songs – artists like Paul McCartney (The Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout”) and Keith Richards (The Stones’ “Cry to Me”) are interviewed and give him high praise. He did not live to hear Janis Joplin’s version of “Piece of My Heart,” which it is thought he wrote as a direct response to knowing that his damaged heart was inevitably going to prematurely curtail his life. He definitely lived it to the hilt and in his final years he was playing with some pretty dubious mobster buddies. But who can blame him? His widow has nothing but affection for him and his son, Brett, who made the film, clearly does also.
BANG! is filled with fascinating archival photos, wonderful interviews, and tells a fascinating personal story without any fluff. The result is a truly great doc, with classic blues and rock music that’s hard not to love.