We’ve reached an interesting point in rock ‘n’ roll documentaries where it seems that each star has been tackled in their own film so all that’s left are to examine the lives of the movers and shakers behind the scenes. Just recently we’ve seen documentaries on rock photographers and managers. The latest is Bang! The Bert Berns Story, which looks as the life of a writer-producer that churned out a number of hits in the 60s. As documentaries go, Bang! is fairly by the numbers but comes to life when the artists that performed for Berns share their stories on this eccentric and unique figure.
Bert Berns was born in New York City to immigrant parents in 1929. As a child he contracted rheumatic fever which weakened his heart and left him indoors for a lengthy period of time. He then began to study music and created a love affair with music that would give him a sense of purpose. Berns began hitting the nightclubs and writing his own songs in the hopes of breaking into the business, and at first he had little success. Before the revolution, Berns traveled to Cuba and became enamored with the music and culture, and upon his return told wild stories that ranged from meeting Fidel Castro to running guns for the revolutionaries. Embellishment was a defining trait for Bert Berns.
Upon his return from Cuba, Bert Berns started a run that would give him the greatest professional success of his short life, starting a seven-year run where everything he touched turned to gold. He’d write “A Little Bit of Soap” for the Jarmels and from there would pen a massive hit for the Isley Brothers with “Twist and Shout.” He would also record hits for the Exciters with “Tell Him” and Solomon Burke with “Cry to Me.” This string of success would take Berns into Atlantic Records, working alongside Jerry Wexler. The same success followed Berns to his new label, crafting hits for Burke once again with “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” the Drifters with “Under the Boardwalk,” and Barbara Lewis with “Baby I’m Yours.”
Berns’ massive success led to him getting his own label imprint under Atlantic with Bang! Records. Bands like The Strangeloves would find hits on the label with “I Want Candy” and other acts on the label included Neil Diamond and Van Morrison. Eventually, though, there would be falling out between Wexler and Berns, the ugly side of business eventually rearing its ugly head and shattering the relationship. Berns would continue writing and producing music. One of the last compositions that Berns ever wrote was “Take a Little Piece of My Heart,” which would go onto be one of his most recognizable songs as well as a piece of autobiography as his childhood illness has left him with a weakened heart that always troubled his mind. That weakened heart would hold out much longer and Bert Berns died in 1967 at the age of 38.
There are a number of fascinating anecdotes in Bang! The Bert Berns Story, and it’s once the film directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles. Interviews with Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, and songwriter Mike Stoller, as well as many, many more, bring a level of depth to the chronological unfolding of the story. Steven Van Zandt, aka Little Steven, of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band narrates the documentary and does so in a manner that is remarkably similar to the way he tells stories on his radio show, somewhat slow and deliberate with pauses that emphasized by his Boston accent.
Bang! The Bert Berns Story starts of quite dry with some rather rote biographical information about its subject. Once it comes to life thanks to fascinating stories and some great music, it highlight a unique and overlooked figure in the world of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music, a man who knew that he only had a limited amount of time to leave his impact and he certainly did that. The string of hits that Bert Berns churned out of his magnificent seven-year run rival that of any great songwriter, and Bang! The Bert Berns Story ensures that this overlooked master of songwriting isn’t overlooked any more.