October 17, 2019

‘Bert Berns Story’ pays tribute to a music pioneer

The name Bert Berns might not ring a bell, but his songs certainly do. As a prolific songwriter and music producer, Berns is the man behind such pop and soul hits as “Twist and Shout,” “Hang On Sloopy,” “Under the Boardwalk” and “Piece of My Heart.”  The founder of Bang! Records, Berns was one of the most influential music figures of the 1960s. But he died in 1967 at age 38, never achieving widespread recognition or fame.

His son, Brett Berns, has made it his life’s mission to remedy that with his documentary, “Bang! The Bert Berns Story,” which opens May 5 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. It’s a loving biographical homage to the father he barely knew.

Brett Berns was only 2 years old when his father, who suffered from rheumatic fever since childhood, died of heart failure, leaving behind his widow, Ilene, and two other children, Cassie, 10 months, and Russell, 2 weeks at the time.

“He knew he was going to die young, and sure enough, he did,” Berns said. “I didn’t get to know him, and he’d been pretty much written out of the history books. I knew I had to tell his dramatic life story and get people to pay attention to the body of work he left behind.”

The documentary, Berns’ first film, “was a 10-year effort. The biggest challenge was just getting started,” he said. He gradually conducted interviews with his father’s friends, collaborators and well-known soul singers, enabling him to land major stars. “Cissy Houston and Solomon Burke were heroes to guys like Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Keith Richards. It was an enormous coup to get them, but I think they agreed to [be interviewed] because they loved Bert and his music.

“We got everyone we wanted, except for Neil Diamond,” Berns said, noting that his mother, a music industry bigwig in her own right — she took over at Bang! Records after her husband’s death — resisted taking part until McCartney and Morrison were on board. “She made me fight for it. But she’s a big star in the film. She was one of the toughest and most inspiring people I knew.”

Ilene Berns died in February at age 73.

Berns turned to author Joel Selvin and his book “Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm & Blues” for “so much of my father’s music and story that I wasn’t aware of. He’s the world’s leading authority on my dad,” he said. The film not only covers Berns’ creative career, it reveals his mob connections and his ties to Judaism and Israel.

Berns was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to Russian-Jewish immigrants who changed their name from Beresovsky. “His Jewish identity was mainly cultural, ethnic, nationalist. He was one of those tough, fighting Jews that took the lesson of the Holocaust and personalized it. He loved Israel. He was such a passionate Zionist,” his son said, offering an example: Bert Berns once turned a record release party into a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal. “He wanted to fight in the Six-Day War, but he had young children, he was running the label and his heart was failing,” his son said.

Twenty years later, Brett Berns graduated from the University of Virginia and fulfilled his father’s unrealized dream by making aliyah and joining the Israeli army. Brett’s connection to Judaism solidified during his college years, when he began to study Hebrew and visited Israel. The Yad Vashem memorial made an indelible impression on him. “It really shocked me, and I came back wanting to learn as much as I could about the Jewish people and Israel and be part of that experience,” he said.

Berns served in the infantry and was a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces, and planned to stay in Israel, but when the rights to his father’s music reverted to his heirs in 1990, he returned to the United States to help administer the publishing. “As I started to dig into my father’s music and legacy, I became, with my sister, a champion of my father’s legacy and efforts to tell his story,” he said.

As the documentary continues to be screened at film festivals and opens to the public, Berns is working on other ways to do that. “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story Musical,” by Daniel Goldfarb, played a limited run off-Broadway in 2014 and is being readied for its Broadway debut, “hopefully in the fall,” Berns said. “It’s a jukebox musical, but my dad’s songs are so deeply autobiographical that they really serve the story.”

He added that there might be a scripted film or TV version of Bert’s story in the future.

Berns said he thinks his father would love the film, the play, “and all of our efforts to have him achieve the recognition that’s eluded him all these decades. We got him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, and with the 50th anniversary of his death this year, I hope people will take away the message of his life. He never gave up on his dreams, and he lived life like there was no tomorrow. I think there’s a lesson from that for everybody. He inspired me, and I hope he’ll inspire generations to come.”