Chances are, you’ve never heard of Bert Berns, but the chances are even greater that you know — and love — so many of the songs he’d written. But a new documentary, Bang! The Bert Berns Story aims to change all that, and even help rewrite a little bit of what you understand about rock and roll history, too.
“The sands of time just sort of buried his legacy,” explained Brett Berns, the son of the late Bert Berns and co-director of the documentary. He credits his mother, Irene Berns, for keeping the legacy of his father alive in the hearts of him and his siblings. It wasn’t until later in life, after his time in both college and the military, that Brett Berns started to realize not only the massive impact of his father’s legacy, but how he was essentially lost in obscurity.
“I set out with my sister to tell this story in order for people to recognize his body of work. [To do that] we had to tell this incredibly harrowing and dramatic life story for people to pay attention to the music.”
As a first-time filmmaker, Brett Berns enlisted the help of Bob Sarles to help tell his father’s story. A veteran editor, director, and producer with a resume steeped in music, Sarles was able to lend his expertise in crafting the film.
“Brett had been gathering interviews for his documentary about his father for many years,” explained Sarles. “My wife, Christina Keating [who’s credited as a producer], and I have a small film production company that has produced a fair amount of music related content, and because this was Brett’s first film, he felt needed people with our filmmaking expertise to help him complete his project.”
Brett Berns had already been working on the project by the time he involved Sarles, given that time wasn’t exactly on his side. “If I didn’t start soon, I was gonna lose that generation of people that my dad worked with. I learned to edit in FinalCut, and built a 90-minute rough cut over the course of seven, eight, nine years. It was almost a decade of development just under my own hand.”
While the whole thing was a learning process for Berns, there was a similar learning curve for Sarles when he was brought onboard.
“I knew nothing of Bert Berns prior to digesting [Joel] Selvin’s exhaustive biography,” said Sarles, who explained that the book, Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues “told me everything I needed to know.”
“I was born in the 50s, so I grew up with the Berns songbook as part of the soundtrack of my life, but I had no idea that Bert Berns had his hand in the writing of so many of my favorite recordings,” Sarles added.
“I always knew I had to bring in a world-class editor to take my sort-of rough vision and give wings to it,” said Berns, who brought in Sarles on the recommendation of Selvin, Bert Berns’ biographer.
“My understanding of the depth of Bern’s contribution to soul music and pop music crystallized while putting the film together,” said Sarles. “Berns was a first generation Jew from the Bronx, but the man had soul.”
Throughout the film, it’s easy to see the kind of impact Bert Berns had on the lives of those he worked with. Everyone from Paul McCartney to Solomon Burke, Keith Richards to Van Morrison all tell their stories with glowing enthusiasm.
“They were so generous and so kind and so prepared that it was like they interviewed themselves,” said Berns. “It was the great experience of a lifetime to get to interview those guys.”
Of course, with such a wealth of talent willing to share their personal stories about how Bert Berns touched their lives, there was a substantial amount of content that had been put together, which is where Sarles’ experience came in.
“My greatest contribution, I believe, was finding the story arc that we needed to tell,” said Sarles. “There was an abundance of stories, artists and songs to represent. Frankly, too many stories to tell in an hour and a half. You can never truly be comprehensive in this kind of film, but, if you do it right, you can be representative and tell a story that is true to the subject, compelling and entertaining.”
It’s clear that they’ve accomplished their goal. From the movie’s premiere at SXSW in 2016 (which is when I called it “the new high-water mark for music documentaries“), to subsequent festival screenings, the audience reactions have been palpable — and even a little bit unexpected.
“When the reputation of the film started to buzz, every screening was sold out,” explained Berns. “And when we have a full house, it’s unbelievable how often people laugh out loud at this film. We thought we were making a serious music documentary — and it still is — but it’s so fun to watch the film with an audience.”
Part of these reactions almost seem like their contagious. With so many icons of rhythm and blues, soul, and early rock and roll music sharing their stories of Bert Berns, often wide-eyed and grinning ear-to-ear, it’s impossible to not feel the same. Add to that the soundtrack filled with his songs that have all played such an enormous role in our shared history, it’s impossible to not be uplifted when watching it.
It’s a feeling that’s shared by Sarles, who describes Bang! as “the best thing that I’ve had creative input on that I’ve been able to work on. When we began showing it to audiences at film festivals, and I saw the incredible reaction people had to it, it was very gratifying.”
Therein lies the real charm of the film, which is not just an eye-opening lesson on how one man was responsible for so much music at a pivotal moment time, but a genuinely emotional experience by everyone involved.
“These guys have such affection after 40, 50 years,” said Berns, who started to lament those that have passed on since their interviews were filmed as far back as a decade, including his mother, Irene, whose presence in Bang! is itself an engaging, emotional powerhouse.
“I always joke in the Q&As when I get asked what was the hardest interview to get, and I say ‘It wasn’t these legends of rock and roll, it was my mother,'” explained Berns. “It was difficult to get her to sit down for an interview, but when she did, it was like the lioness roared, and she ends up stealing the film.”
It’s an experience that’s not quite comparable to any other film, music documentary or otherwise. It shines the spotlight on a man who spent most of his career behind the scenes, writing and producing songs that would impact generation after generation for years to come, balancing his impact on music history as well as his complicated personal life — but one that’s heard in every note of his incomparable catalog of songs.
“Ultimately, I feel like audiences will get a good sense of who he was,” said Sarles, “and by the end of the film will feel like they spent some time with him.”
Bang! The Bert Berns Story is now playing in select theaters. You can check out their website to see if it’s playing in a theater near you.