By Sam Hawkins
If you haven’t heard of Bert Berns, I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it.
Fifty years after the fact, first-time filmmaker, Brett Berns, has shed a little light on his late father’s legacy in his documentary debut BANG! The Bert Berns Story.
As the in-house hitmaker for Atlantic Records, Bert Berns would go on to become one of the most influential music men of his time. Working with bands like The Beatles, Van Morrison and Neil Diamond, he’d help write, produce and release over 50 pop hits throughout the 1960s. “A master of creating his own myth,” Berns’ lived larger than life, buddying up with New York’s most notorious mobsters, all the while shaping the sonic landscape how he saw fit.
Recounting his unconventional career, the film features a number of illuminating interviews, ranging from Bert’s friends and family to some of music’s most iconic superstars. Cleverly cut with narrator Steven Van Zandt’s voice, the film flows naturally from one scene to the next, incorporating family photos with funky fonts and figures. And with the likes of Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, amongst other impressive interviewees, you quickly get the sense that this isn’t just some sort of corny campfire kumbaya. Bert was the real deal, and somewhere along the way, he was forgotten.
But at an hour and thirty-five minutes long, Bang! leaves at least some stones unturned. For all its anecdotal appeal, certain sections of Berns’ life are vague and glossed over. While one can only sit through so many minutes, a longer run time would not have hurt this film, as it succeeds to ensnare and keep you wanting more. But, in spite of its length, the film does do him justice, putting together a comprehensive and highly personal story.
As attentive as it is to its protagonist, the film’s greatest accomplishment might be in its attention to atmosphere. Using archival footage of NYC and other urban areas, Bang! snaps a shot of a place even our parents might not fully remember. Whether walking along Broadway in and out of traffic or capturing the chaotic atmosphere of an afro-Cuban dance club, the film immerses its audience in each scene in ways other music docs rarely do.
And somewhat unsurprisingly, the film’s score is nothing to scoff at. With a selection of songs pulled right from the 60s – many of which Bert himself was responsible for – this cinematic time capsule feels both fresh and familiar.
All in all, Bang! The Bert Berns Story is as much for music lovers as it is casual movie goers. That Bert Berns should ever have been forgotten is a wonder in itself, but, with the likes of his son, this film and a recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he might finally be making a name for himself.
BANG! The Bert Berns Story screens at VIFF on October 11 at 6PM at the International Village 8.