Watch Doug Morris and Ronald Isley Laud Bert Berns In Exclusive Preview Of 'Bang! The Bert Berns Story'

Popsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Bert Berns at a Bang Records recording session in the studio on March 28, 1967 in New York. 

By the time he died at 38, Bert Berns had left an indelible mark as a songwriter, producer, and label head. He wrote and/or produced such modern classics as “Piece of My Heart,” “Twist and Shout,” “Cry to Me,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Hang On Sloopy” and several others. He launched Bang! Records, the early label home for Van Morrison and Neil Diamond.

Yet, following his death in 1967, he became a footnote in music history instead of sharing a rightful place alongside bold-faced names such as Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. Bang! The Bert Berns Story, a riveting documentary that opens in New York April 26, attempts to right that wrong. 

“He was the most obscure of these great songwriters, and producers,” says his son Brett, who co-directed the film with Bob Sarles. “He’d receded so far, he’d gotten so lost, that there were no lifetime achievement award, no Hall of Fame.” (Berns was posthumously inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2016). 

The documentary, enthusiastically narrated by Stevie Van Zandt, chronicles Berns’ short life and his long accomplishments through archival footage and interviews with Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Van Morrison, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Doug Morris, Mike Stoller, Cissy Houston and many more. 

In the exclusive clip below, artists Ronald Isley and Betty Harris discuss “Cry Baby,” the soul smash Berns wrote for Garnet Mimms and the figurative and literal broken heart -- he died from complications from his childhood bout with rheumatic fever-- that informed so many of Berns’ hits. “He felt everything he did, everything,” says Houston. “I always sensed this strange sadness about him,” Morris says.

Brett Berns worked on the documentary for more than a decade, pressing on even though there was precious little footage of his father in the studio and no video or audio interviews with him to draw upon. “You make the film that you get,” Brett says. “We were fortunate to have all his friends and colleagues come forward. I think that’s one reason [Bert] came across so strongly in the film: people loved him and remembered him like it was yesterday. Almost every song in the movie is one he wrote or produced, so his music plays as a character in the film.” The rights to Berns’ songs reverted back to the family in 1999, which made clearing the music for the documentary infinitely easier. 

The music is unforgettable, but so are the colorful characters that populated Berns’ world -- and the music world in general in the ‘60s -- including  the mobsters who served as Berns’ guardian angels. “That was part of the learning curve -- how deep the mob connections went  and how much a role they played in his career, especially at the end,” says Brett, who was two when his father died. “He was born in the mean streets of the Bronx and grew up in the neighborhood and was more comfortable with those people. The fact that he had a ticking time bomb of a heart and lived like there was no tomorrow may have contributed to the fact that he was willing to go these places that others wouldn’t have gone.” The edges were rough enough that the film alleges that Berns’ mob ties sent a young Diamond into hiding when he wanted off of Bang!

Bang!, which cost $1.3 million to make, premiered at South by Southwest in 2016 and has played at more than 40 film festivals. Following the New York run, Bang!, distributed by Abramorama, is slated for week-long runs in several cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Nashville, San Antonio, Texas, and Scottsdale, Ariz.. The home video and video-on-demand release are still in negotiations, but Brett adds that he’s talking to all usual suspects, such as Netflix and the pay cable outlets. 

Brett sees the film as the move to help re-introduce his father, following Joel Selvin’s book, Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, which serves as the framework for the movie, and the Rock and Roll Hall Induction. Next, he says, is a move to Broadway for Piece of My Heart, the Off-Broadway jukebox musical about his father’s life that ran in 2014.  Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, will help produce. “He’s been a friend, ally, and fan,” Brett says of Van Zandt. “When it became clear we needed a narrator, he was our first choice. We thought, ‘that’s the guy. We’ll bring in the musicologist, We’ll bring in Silvio Dante’,” he jokes, citing Van Zandt’s character on The Sopranos.

The film’s theatrical release is bittersweet: Brett’s mom, Ilene, who took over Bang! following Bert’s death and is seen as his fierce protector in the film, died Feb. 20 shortly after seeing the movie on the big screen for the first time at a film festival in Miami. She was set to join her son for a screening at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in March. “I got the call that she had passed,” Brett recalls. “I honest believe seeing the film in that moment in time gave her a peace and grace that she didn’t have before that.”