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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024