Mu­sic pro­ducer Bert Berns (left) is the sub­ject of a new movie.

San Francisco Chronicle - - CONTENTS - By Pam Grady

You may not know the name Bert Berns, but if you are at all fa­mil­iar with pop­u­lar mu­sic of the 1960s, then you know Bert Berns. The song­writer and pro­ducer, the sub­ject of the doc­u­men­tary “Bang! The Bert Berns Story,” screen­ing at the Mill Val­ley Film Fes­ti­val, was only 38 when the heart trou­ble that had plagued him since a child­hood bout with rheumatic fever killed him in 1967. And he was a late bloomer, 31, when he be­gan his string of hits, but what a string.

“Twist and Shout,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Cry to Me,” “Hang On, Sloopy” and “Here Comes the Night” are just some of the songs Berns wrote or co-wrote. Among his pro­duc­ing cred­its were the Is­ley Broth­ers’ record­ing of “Twist and Shout,” the Drifters’ “Un­der the Board­walk,” and Van Mor­ri­son’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” He was a staff pro­ducer at At­lantic, was among the few pro­duc­ers to work in Eng­land dur­ing the Bri­tish In­va­sion, and owned two record la­bels, Bang and Shout.

“My mother al­ways told my sis­ter and me when we were chil­dren and through­out our lives, ‘Your dad knew he was go­ing to die young, and he would say, ‘My chil­dren will know me through my mu­sic,’ ” says “Bang!” co-direc­tor Brett Berns, the el­dest of Bert Berns’ three chil­dren and only 2 years old when his fa­ther died. “It be­came a kind of mantra, a kind of ral­ly­ing cry for us over time.”

Brett Berns cred­its for­mer Chron­i­cle Pop Mu­sic Critic Joel Selvin, who also ap­pears in “Bang!” and wrote the doc­u­men­tary’s nar­ra­tion, with get­ting the ball rolling in restor­ing Bert Berns to his proper place in pop mu­sic. Selvin spent years work­ing on his 2014 bi­og­ra­phy of Berns, “Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Busi­ness of Rhythm and Blues.”

“Joel had been work­ing on this book prob­a­bly since the early ’70s, on some level,” Brett Berns says. “On some level, he was imag­in­ing telling the Bert Berns story. He was re­ally the first one to get it and con­nect all the dots. When I met Joel, he opened a world to my fa­ther that I didn’t know ex­isted in terms of my dad’s mu­sic, and also we helped each other con­nect dots in the story.”

Selvin also in­tro­duced Brett Berns to San Fran­cisco film­maker Bob Sar­les, whose own films in­clude “Sweet Blues: A Film About Mike Bloom­field” (2013). Orig­i­nally brought on to edit “Bang!,” he now shares direc­tor credit with Berns.

Among the big­gest chal­lenges he found when he came aboard the film was how to make Bert Berns a char­ac­ter when all the filmmakers had to work with was pho­to­graphs. There isn’t even any home movie footage of him. A short au­dio clip of Berns in the studio work­ing with singer Betty Har­ris was the key to bring­ing him to life.

“We ba­si­cally re-cre­ated a circa early ’60s studio, and then we cast a stand-in for Betty Har­ris,” says Sar­les. “Some peo­ple think we ac­tu­ally found footage of Betty Har­ris in the studio.”

The heart of “Bang!” is

“Bang!” fea­tures in­ter­views with song­writ­ers in­clud­ing Jeff Barry, Mike Stoller and Jerry Ragovoy and per­form­ers in­clud­ing Betty Har­ris, Ron Is­ley, Solomon Burke and Van Mor­ri­son.

Ravin’ Films pho­tos

Left: Song­writer/pro­ducer Bert Berns (left), the doc­u­men­tary sub­ject who was known for the hits “Twist and Shout” and “Piece of My Heart,” with At­lantic Records part­ner/pro­ducer Jerry Wexler.

Above: Bert Berns (left), owner of two record la­bels, Bang and Shout, and singer-song­writer Van Mor­ri­son (lower right).

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