A documentary about the most important songwriter and record producer from the sixties that you’ve never heard of.
By Paul Dervis
The Maine Jewish Film Festival played in Portland all last week, and the organizers brought in some interesting, sometimes even intoxicating, pieces to New England. Over the course of its twenty year history, the Festival has earned a reputation for presenting films that would not otherwise have gotten screenings in Southern Maine. And this year was no exception.
Opening weekend featured a documentary on Leonard Nimoy, For the Love of Spock. Directed by the subject’s son, Adam Nimoy, the film is is chock-full of interviews with his Star Trek peers, including William Shatner and George Takei. Besides the moving reminiscences, the film draws provocative parallels between the actor and the iconic character he created.
Another fascinating documentary screened this week was The Last Laugh. (Arts Fuse review) Comics ranging from Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman discuss whether the horrors of the Holocaust resist humor. Interspersed with observations on the limits of laughter is the story of Renee Firestone, an Auschwitz survivor. Directed by Ferne Pearlstein, this showing sold out early.
But the most compelling film of the week had to be BANG! The Bert Berns Story. If you never heard of Berns, you are not alone. But you have surely heard his creations. Berns was a songwriter, record producer, and all-around music maker who wrote, among many other hits, “Twist and Shout.” As a producer, he walked Van Morrison through “Brown Eyed Girl” … and that is just the beginning.
Born a Russian Jew in an upper middle class family in the Bronx, he contracted rheumatic fever in his youth. The doctors said he wouldn’t make it to the age of twenty, a death sentence that changed the even-tempered kid into a frenzied teenager. He spent a great deal of time in Latin music clubs, dancing the night away. Music was his passion, and he attempted to make a name for himself as a performer. It turns out he had a weak voice, but a powerful gift for writing songs.
After returning home from a stay in Cuba, Berns developed a sound that fit early ’60s Rock as well as Soul. He both wrote and produced hits for Solomon Burke, the Drifters, and the Isley Brothers. He caught the attention of Atlantic Records, and became their staff producer. He was only in his early thirties, but he had the Midas Touch. He was fast tracked — because he had to be. Berns wasn’t destined to be here for long.
Given his damaged heart and the fact that he was a chain smoker, Berns raced through his life. He was the embodiment of the famous Budd Schulberg novel, What Makes Sammy Run. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals all recorded songs he wrote. Thus he took the opportunity to cross the ocean to become the first American record producer to work in London. He first collaborated with Morrison, producing his band “Them.” With Berns’s guidance, they turned out hits like “Here Comes the Night” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
After leaving Atlantic (where Berns made as many enemies as friends), he formed his own label, Bang Records, where he produced the McCoys’s “Hang on Sloopy” and Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” But mortality was closing in; he died in 1967 at the age of 38.
BANG! is so filled with interviews of the giants of music that you can only shake your head. We hear from Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Van Morrison, and many others. The pace of the movie is as fast as Berns’s life; this may be a documentary, but it moves along with the pacing of a fiction film. We hear from loads of people who loved him and hated him; everyone in the industry knew him, and knew him well.
My only complaint with the film, which is directed by Berns’s son Brett Berns (with Bob Sarles), is that too many of the still shots are repeated time and time again. Ironically, for someone so well connected, there doesn’t seem to have been enough photographic footage around to fill ninety minutes.
After the screening, a concert was given at the Portland House of Music by Betty Harris, an R&B singer featured in BANG!.
It was quite a night.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe