You know the tunes but maybe not their source. Though Brett Berns and Bob Sarles’ film boasts appearances by Paul McCartney and Keith Richards, it’s (mercifully) not another boomer-rock hagiography; they’re the draw to get you into the theater for a film honoring their inspirations, the likes of Solomon Burke and the Isley Brothers — and the man who wrote many of those artists’ best songs.
Early on, the documentary argues that Jewish and black kids in 1960s New York had a natural affinity for the same kinds of music; though not the primary theme here, that seems like a topic ripe for further exploration. Berns became a hitmaker at 31 and was dead at the age of 38, felled by a heart defect. One of his biggest hits, “Piece of My Heart,” is literally about his condition; many of his other tunes (“Cry Baby,” “Cry to Me,” etc.) similarly evolved from his sense of imminent mortality. (An inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bearns has had an Off Broadway musical, Piece of My Heart, based on his life.)
Blending stock footage, vintage audio, re-creation, and many testimonials from heavy hitters from Ben E. King to Van Morrison, Berns’ son Brett keeps things visually lively, and not as morose as may be implied: The origin story of “I Want Candy” is hilarious, and Berns’ mob-adjacent associates play like forerunners of Suge Knight. Best of all is the story of how a young Phil Spector so ruined the original Top Notes version of “Twist and Shout” that it drove Berns to learn production so he could do it better one day.
Bang! The Bert Berns Story
Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles
Opens April 26, IFC Center