Saturday, June 16, 2018

Review: 'Bang: The Bert Berns Story'


Bert Berns is not unusual in the pop world because he was a great songwriter who wrote tons of hits; there were quite a few of them. He’s also not unusual because he was a businessman who fancied himself a tough guy; there were lots of those too. Berns is unique because of how completely he played both roles, writing and/or producing some of pop and soul’s A-list classics—“Twist and Shout”, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love”, “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Tell Him”, “Piece of My Heart”, “I Want Candy”, “Cry to Me”, and too many more—and doing gangster-type stuff with gangster-type guys all in the name of “business.” I wouldn’t blame you for scoffing at the unsavory stuff he was involved in (why is dangling someone out of a window always the go-to business method for music business bullies?), but you cannot minimize the body of work, and that is what makes Bang: The Bert Berns Story an important documentary. Because as well known as Berns’s songs are, he is not a household name, and a Rock & Roll education is incomplete without being able to identify the guy who was largely responsible for so much incredible music. 

With the passage of years, many of the artists in his circle seem to have let bygones be bygones and have no compunction about paying their respects. Watching the film, I was floored by how complimentary the eternally surly Van Morrison was when the notoriously protective artist discussed the guy who’d released Morrison’s first album and packaged it in legendarily tasteless fashion all without the artist’s knowledge (Neil Diamond, who had a friend attacked and a gig ruined with a stink bomb both at Berns’s behest, is probably justifiably still sore, hence his lack of participation).

The good and the bad get full airing in Bang, but there is no judgmental point of view in the filmmaking, which is probably all for the best considering that Berns’s son Brett is the filmmaker and the movie could have just as easily become some sort of straight-up hagiography. Yet, that neutrality also makes a fairly exciting story feel a bit rote. Steven Van Zant’s narration brings some much-needed personality to the picture, and I defy you not to feel as though you’re hanging out in the back room of the Badda Bing while Silvio Dante regales you with tales of his old crew. And though the film is overly reliant on the standard Rock-doc talking heads, the talking heads in question—Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Solomon Burke, Ellie Greenwich, Ben E. King, Mike Stoller, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison—are pretty damn impressive.

The 64 minutes of bonus interviews on the DVD edition of Bang: The Bert Berns Story don’t necessarily provide revelations that the feature skips (though it might have if Van Morrison had a slot among the extras), but they flesh out the story a bit with more memories of the man, the music, and the sketchy company he kept.



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