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