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November 10, 2016

Denver Film Festival: Bang! The Bert Berns Story


Brett Berns and Bob Sarles - 2016
Ravin' Films

Even with Bert Berns' eldest son, Brett, as a producer and co-director, Bang! The Bert Berns Story is hardly a hagiography. Even if the name Bert Berns is unfamiliar, it would seem to me almost impossible for anyone to not have even fleetingly heard a song Berns wrote, or had his hand in as a producer. And if one had to whittle the list down to one song, that would have to be "Twist and Shout".

Bang! is something of a documentary about the short, colorful life of Bert Berns, but what is also of interest is the history of some of the individual songs. In the case of "Twist and Shout", a more frenetic version produced by Phil Spector, sung by the vocal group, The High Notes, was recorded in 1961. Berns felt that Spector ruined the song he had in mind. Still just getting himself established in the music industry, Berns produced the version sung by the Isley Brothers that proved to be a much bigger hit, soon catching the ears of a struggling British rock band cutting their first singles.

Bert Berns was very much a part of the history of popular music of the 1960s. As a teen who use to obsessively read liner notes on record albums back at that time, I had come across Berns' name several times. The then thirty-one year old songwriter had his first hit writing "A Little Bit of Soap", with hits first as a song writer, and later a producer, culminating in Berns' having his own label, Bang!, best known for Van Morrison's early solo hits and introducing a singer-songwriter named Neil Diamond.

The narration was written by Joel Selvin, author of the biography, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and read by Steven Van Zandt, in his inimitable voice. The film is a combination of documentary footage of musicians performing Berns' songs, as well as street scenes of New York City, and interviews with Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, Cissy Houston, as well as fellow songwriters of the era including Jerry Lieber, Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry. Among the family members, most significant is Berns' wife, Ilene, who is frank in discussing some of the darker aspects of Berns' life.

Which leads us to Carmine DeNoia, who may have not been a gangster, but knew people, and could be intimidating when he felt it necessary. DeNoia's few stories would suggest the best music industry movie or series that Martin Scorsese never made. Even without DeNoia, we still have an amazing story of a young man who outlived predictions of an early death due rheumatic fever, and overcame years of setbacks to be associated with some of the most popular songs recorded, before dying, at age thirty-eight, on New Years Eve, 1967. Even if Berns' life was not totally happy, and it is pointed out that there are several songs with "Cry" as part of the title, there are humorous moments, such as the story of that fake Australian band, The Strangeloves. That Berns' songs continue to get cover versions is enough of a reminder that many of these fifty year old songs are more than "Golden Oldies".

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 10, 2016 07:59 AM