Behind the Music Making: ‘Bang! The Bert Berns Story’ Celebrates the Industry

A fun look at the man behind “Twist and Shout.”

“Back in the day, good records were made,” Betty Harris, singer of such songs as “Cry to Me,” tells us in the middle of Bang! The Bert Berns Story. The movie is a celebration of the writer of that particular ditty, a man named Bertrand Russell Berns, who hailed from the Jewish corners of the Bronx. In addition to “Cry to Me,” Berns wrote “Twist and Shout” and “Piece of My Heart,” combinations of doo-wop and soul that were later made into emblematic anthems of the hippie-era by some of the whiter and larger-than-life figures of the 1960s. The outer layers of the documentary, which is co-directed by the subject’s son, Brett Berns, with Bob Sarles (Fly Jefferson Airplane), toy with the songwriter as some kind of unsung hero. One of the film’s tag lines is “One of the great untold stories of rock and roll,” but the territory of Bang! is mercifully more interesting than, say, Searching for Sugar Man or A Band Called Death. The music industry is full of losers. Bert Berns was a winner.

Successful pop songwriters (at least of the non-Swedish superstar variety) aren’t usually household names 50 years later, so Berns’s story is interesting in its own right. Taking Afro-Cuban rhythms allegedly discovered on a brief trip to Havana and interpolating them into the backbeat of soul and swing music is a meaningful, if subdued, accomplishment, and his close work helming songs with Solomon Burke and The Drifters and the Isley Brothers lacks the general insidiousness attached to the appropriative rock and roll narrative so often dangling from the pens of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. To wit, Burke, members of The Drifters and at least one Isley Brother testify to the necessity of the man’s work.

The accomplishment of the film is its fixation on the mechanics of songwriting and production, a deferral of the convenient slip of genius that most portraits of music makers resign themselves to skidding on. The direction of Bang!, while staying within the lines of the talking-head led doc, occasionally slows down to let us watch the sausage get made. The moments are drawn out to ensure Berns’s authorship is emphasized, but the collaboration between songwriter, producer and singer is the energetic stuff of 33 1/3 books and amply displayed with the use of demos played over photos of analog equipment.

Harris’s performance on “Cry to Me” is carefully teased out into the all-conquering and bitingly pure yearn that became her signature deep soul hit. The same treatment is given to Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” which Berns recorded and released on his own label, an Atlantic-subsidiary called Bang Records. Amid graphics of 45' records floating celebratorily in the air, music trivia like the kind you find in Nick Hornsby novels is tossed around. Berns’s last-minute idea to get the Isley Brothers to do a version of his “Twist and Shout” ends up bankrolling much of his career.

Van Morrison, Paul McCartney and Keith Richards also testify to Bert Berns’s songwriting and production prowess. But Neil Diamond, who Berns had signed early in Diamond’s career, is conspicuously absent.

The doc’s biggest sell is, obviously, Steven Van Zandt’s narration. His rock and roll bonafides as Bruce Springsteen’s axman are very legit, but he will always be Tony Soprano’s inconspicuous consigliere, with the magical ability to turn the most asinine observation into Jersey shorthand for violently enforced truth. Zandt does not shy away from this. He calls Burns an “authentic character,” and it sounds like something profoundly grunted. When the documentary veers off into an overlong digression about Berns’s involvement with the mafia and their connection to payola schemes, it’s entirely worth it to hear Van Zandt talk about “wise guys” again.

It’s not uncommon to read contemporary music critics bemoaning the current age of the producer-helmed beat, to note today’s homogeneous pop song as evidence of some kind of creative decline or something it had become cool to watch from a smart distance. “Decoding the algorithm behind pop has become something of a consumer fad,” Jillian Mapes observed earlier this year. Bang! presents an affable counter-argument to all this wariness. The songs Berns wrote and produced were the kind aimed at the charts and nowhere else. From a distance, they sound like whatever is playing in the background of a Johnny Rockets. But, like a good Jay Leno monologue, there are workmanlike strings tying it all together, and those strings carry the backbeat of a generation.

While obviously biased, Berns’s son is not unaware of the tension between the man who made a song like “I Want Candy” and the artistic nuance demanded by the Bob Dylan set. Toward the end of his short life, Berns signed a young Neil Diamond and released his first hit, “Solitary Man.” Shortly after, Diamond would use a loophole in the contract to take his wares elsewhere, claiming to feel restricted by Burns’s lack of interest in Diamond’s introspective muse or whatnot. Occurring right around the end of the ‘60s (Berns would be dead by 1967), this break would coincide with the advent of the ‘70s folksy, singer-songwriter type that Diamond’s ilk would pilot, the decade of James Taylor and bands with names like America and Bread.

Keenly, while Bang! is able to sum up the likes of Paul McCarthy and Keith Richards, whose connection to Berns is nominal, Diamond is conspicuously absent. Berns’s wife blamed Diamond’s departure with aggravating her husband’s early death and it appears that such wounds remain untreated. The frustration that dominates the second half of Bang! is human stuff, and reading Berns as a synecdoche of an era of pop music demands you watch the zeitgeist leave him too, as time goes marching on.

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