At the risk of sounding hyperbolic and clichéd…if you see one music doco at this year’s NZ Film Festival, make sure it’s Bang! The Bert Berns Story.
“Who was Bert Berns and what is the significance of Bang?”, I hear you asking.
Berns was one of those behind-the-scenes record guys who operated during the 1960s. His name is on scores of hits as songwriter, producer or label owner…songs like Twist And Shout, Hang On Sloopy, Piece Of My Heart, Cry To Me and Here Comes The Night.
And Bang is the name of the record label he ran that helped kick off the careers of Van Morrison, Neil Diamond and Rick Derringer.
But Bert Berns’ story is much more than a laundry list of old hits and obscure artists.
As told by his son, Brett, who directed the film and Steve Van Zandt, who narrates, Bert Berns was one of the most colourful, talented and driven men in the music business.
He was diagnosed with rheumatic fever as a child and not expected to see his 21st birthday. He beat those odds and stuffed a lifetimes worth of achievements in the short seven years he worked as a music man, before his heart finally gave out at age 38.
As we soon learn, Berns was determined to live life to the fullest while he could.
And he did.
He had a penchant for hanging out with mobsters, and his hobnobbing with them in Cuba in the late 1950s led him to add an Afro-Cuban beat into many of the records he ended up producing.
Along with Van Zandt’s narration, a seemingly endless parade of characters appear in the film to tell the story. There are the usual suspects such as Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Leiber & Stoller, but also lesser seen folks such as Jerry Ragavoy, Betty Harris, Brooks Arthur and Cissy Houston. Even grumpy old Van Morrison has something nice to say about Bert Berns, and their relationship was notoriously tenuous.
The only big name not to appear is Neil Diamond, and you’ll understand why once you watch the film.
Other than Bert himself, the other star of the film is his widow, Ilene Berns, who gives colourful and emotional first-hand accounts of many of the behind the scene shenanigans behind the making of these records…particularly the fallout Berns had with his mentor, Atlantic Records exec Jerry Wexler.
The other standout is a guy named Wessel, a gangland character straight out of central casting who is more than happy to recount his part in “helping” to “influence” certain DJs, distributors and artists.
All this would make for an excellent documentary on its own, but the filmmakers also do a fine job of showing what made Berns such a great songwriter and producer. A session where Berns coaches soul singer Betty Harris is beautifully done, even as Harris is there to give her testimony.
My favourite segment came when it was revealed how the 16-year-old Rick Derringer whipped up the guitar solo for The McCoys’ Hang On Sloopy…pure rock and roll magic!
You don’t have to be a rock and roll nerd who reads the liner notes of every record made to enjoy this film, but it helps. For others, it’s simply an inspiring depiction of a very talented and driven man who knew he had a limited time to make his mark on the world.