Connoisseurs of documentaries about the Golden Age of the music business may feel they've heard this one before: Jewish kid, born in the '20s to outer-borough New Yorkers; gets a crippling disease and shouldn't live past high school; survives to be the unsung genius behind countless hits you know by heart. Bang! The Bert Berns Story has much in common with 2012's A.K.A. Doc Pomus and, even if it's a bit less polished, will be received just as warmly by music lovers, especially those with a nose for the lore of '60s powerhouse Atlantic Records.
Like Pomus and plenty other music docs, Bang is partly a family affair: the subject's son is co-director; other family members pop up in front of and behind the camera. But it's not quite a whitewash: When, as his path through a cutthroat business leads Berns to call on friends in the mob, the movie is more or less frank about the toll it took. And it would be foolish not to include colorful characters like Carmine DeNoia, aka Wassel, an associate who isn't shy about having dangled fellas out of high windows when they failed to honor a bargain.
More important here, though, is the music. After failing in his first songwriting business and taking some time off, Bert Berns got a $50-per-week gig with a song publisher near the Brill Building. He quickly landed a hit when the Jarmels recorded his "A Little Bit of Soap," and when he caught the attention of Atlantic's legendary Jerry Wexler, he had "Twist and Shout" in his pocket as an audition piece. (Phil Spector botched that song's first recording, so Berns produced a second, with the Isley Brothers; in case we've forgotten that record's importance, Paul McCartney shows up to praise it.)
Soon, Berns — remembered here by musicians as the "cool guy" in the studio, whose theatrical persona didn't get in the way of the work — was ankle-deep in hit soul records with stars like Solomon Burke ("Cry to Me") and Garnett Mims ("Cry Baby"). Notice a trend there? The filmmakers do, and credibly wring poignant biographical commentary out of the copious tears in Berns' songs. (Ditto for the fact that the man who died at 38 of heart failure scored one of his last hits with Erma Franklin singing, "Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.")
While enjoyable face time with Van Morrison (who cut "Brown Eyed Girl" with Berns producing) may get more attention from some fans, biz-history buffs will focus on testimony from his songwriting peers and people like Sony Music CEO Doug Morris, who says Berns "was my inspiration." It's these insiders who understand the sad trajectory of the relationship between Berns and Wexler: Though he started as a mentor and friend, Wexler (who comes off terribly here) reportedly grew envious after helping Berns start Bang Records and seeing its startling success. Wexler tried to get a bigger piece of that pie, and things got ugly.
The doc begins with a quote from Wexler in later years, saying he'd piss on Berns' grave if he knew where it was. To judge from Bang!, he was one of very few who felt that way.
Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: HCTN
Directors: Brett Berns, Bob Sarles
Screenwriter: Joel Selvin
Producers: Brooks Arthur, Brett Berns, Cassandra Berns, Michael B. Borofsky, Leo Feroleto, Christina Keating, Araby Patch, Michael Perlman
Executive producer: Sidney Ganis
Directors of photography: Gil Gilbert, Aaron Medick
Editor: Bob Sarles