It was a long time coming, but after a book, a musical, and a 2016 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the story of Bert Berns — genius songwriter, skilled producer and record label honcho — was a documentary that simply needed to be made.
Berns was the guy who wrote “Twist and Shout,” “Here Comes The Night,” “Piece Of My Heart,” and dozens of other classic tunes. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Them featuring Van Morrison smartly covered his songs at the onset of the 1960s’ “British Invasion.” Shooting up the ranks as an in-demand songwriter and producer, Berns threw his lot in with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records, who then helped him form Bang Records in 1965.
All of this success meant a lot of money to a lot of people at a time when the record business was still a wide-open proposition with plenty of criminal influence around the edges.
Not content to simply herald the trailblazer that was Berns, filmmakers Brett Berns and Bob Sarles tell a dramatic New York story in “Bang! The Bert Berns Story” — one that includes hard ambition, creative vision, unlikely alliances, true love, friendship and betrayal as well as hardcore mobsters who did not mess around.
Narrated by Steven Van Zandt, who gives the film’s voiceover a nice subtle touch, “Bang!” explores Berns’ close relationships with wiseguys Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia and Tommy Eboli. According to filmmaker Bob Sarles, “This whole era in NYC, it was not unusual that the mob was involved in the record business, they were just part of the fabric of the industry.”
Besides Van Zandt’s sly narration, the doc features many insightful testimonials, some long overdue. Commentary from the likes of Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Ronald Isley, Solomon Burke and Ben E. King are offset by recollections from record industry associates like Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, Jerry Ragovoy, Mike Stoller, Doug Morris, and Berns’ devoted wife Ilene, to name a heartfelt few.
While the saga of Bert Berns will always be intertwined with the story of Atlantic Records, it’s also a sad documentation of a parting of ways between Berns and Jerry Wexler, who had been so close with Bert that he was Best Man at Berns’ wedding to Ilene. When push came to shove over their business dealings, Wexler called in the mobbed-up record man Morris Levy to lean on Bert, a sad miscalculation that led Berns to call on his own gangster pal for support, Genovese family member Tommy Eboli. Wexler blinked, and Berns was ultimately freed from his deal with Atlantic. According to Bob Sarles, “Morris Levy was the kind of guy where you could get your knees broken, but Tommy Eboli was the kind of guy where you would just disappear, so it was scary when Tommy showed up.”
All of this intrigue coupled a weak heart from a childhood illness and the frantic lifestyle of producing, songwriting and running a record label left Berns emotionally exhausted. The stress led to his death in 1967 at the young age of 38, but not before he wrote and produced the song “Piece Of My Heart,” which was performed by Aretha Franklin’s sister Erma Franklin and then, a few months after his death, was covered more famously by Janis Joplin.