I’m a sucker for stories about the music business in the 1960s, when it was centered around 1650 Broadway and the Brill Building in Manhattan…yet I was unfamiliar with Bert Berns before I watched Brett Berns and Bob Sarles’s compelling documentary about Brett’s father. I certainly know many of his hit songs, and so do you: “Twist and Shout” was a hit for the Isley Brothers and then for The Beatles. Paul McCartney sings Berns’ praises on camera here, and Keith Richards says he wishes he’d met the man who wrote so many great rock ‘n’ roll anthems. (He also produced many hits, like the timeless “Under the Boardwalk.”)
Berns was a Character with a capital C and so were many of his cohorts, including an incredible fellow nicknamed Wassel (real name: Carmine DeNoia) who’s a great interview. The music business was rife with colorful figures back then, including some who were connected to the Mob. But Berns had something many of them lacked: genuine talent. A solid musician, he also had a great ear for talent, finding just the right match of songs and performers. Many black artists in the rhythm & blues world said he was the only white man they knew who had soul. Among those who appear in this documentary are Solomon Burke, Ben E. King, and Cissy Houston.
Candid interviews with friends, family members, and such artists as Van Morrison punctuate the film. Precious archival footage is artfully blended with dramatic recreations that are so brief and subtle that you can’t always tell when your eye is being fooled.
Bang! is brimming with anecdotes from the people who knew Berns best. He knew his days were numbered after surviving rheumatic fever as a child in the Bronx. It may be a cliché to say that, as a result, he lived life to the fullest but that seems to be the case; his wife Ilene makes that crystal clear. Bert Berns may not be a household name, but once you see this documentary you won’t listen to “Piece of my Heart,” “Tell Him,” or “Hang on Sloopy” without thinking of the man behind those chart-toppers.