Bang! The Bert Berns Story


This is what producing a classic rock track looks like.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Steven van Zandt (narrator), Paul McCartney, Doug Morris, Keith Richards, Ben E. King, Wilson Pickett, Carmen de Noia, Richard Gottehrer, Jerry Goldstein, Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich, Joel Selvin, Robin Levine, Ilene Berns, Andrew Loog Oldham, Van Morrison, Jerry Leiber, Ahmet Ertegun, Solomon Burke, Brenda Reid, Cissy Houston. Directed by Brett Berns and Bob Sarles

 

We know who the great performers of the rock and roll/R&B era are. We know their faces, we know their music. The people who are behind the scenes may not necessarily be as well known other than a few like Phil Spector and George Martin.

Chances are that very few of you reading this have ever heard of Bert Berns, but you certainly know his music as both a songwriter and producer. He’s responsible for such classic songs as “Twist and Shout,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “I Want Candy” and “Piece of My Heart.” His career spanned a mere eight years but in that time he completely remade music in his image.

Berns was a Jewish kid from the Bronx and the last guy you’d think of as a one of the movers and shakers of soul music in the 60s, but truth is a strange motha. He was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy and his heart was severely damaged. He spent most of his convalescence learning to play guitar and piano. His doctors warned his parents that it was unlikely he would survive past his teens; they were proven wrong but not by much.

In the 50s he fell in love with Cuban music, particularly the mambo. He brought that love of Latin rhythms into his music. He sort of slid into the music business sideways, working as a $50 a week songwriter for a tiny New York publishing firm. He wrote a couple of songs that got mild airplay, including the novelty hit “A Little Bit of Soap.” He eventually was brought to the attention of Atlantic Records, then the giant of R&B music. One of the first songs he wrote while employed by them was “Twist and Shout.” It was brought to Phil Spector who did a version that ended up somewhat lame. Horrified, Berns determined to produce the records made of his songs. He took the Isley Brothers into the studio and did the song up right. A legend was born.

The documentary is definitely a labor of love, co-directed by his son Brett. The film is largely a parade of talking heads interspersed with archival stills but that’s largely a necessity. There wasn’t a lot of behind the scenes footage taken back then and performance video wouldn’t become a regular thing until the MTV era.

We get to hear from those who worked with Berns, from performers to engineers. We also hear from his siblings and most importantly, from his wife Ilene – a former go-go dancer. She pulls no punches and gets emotional talking about certain aspects of his life. She has a take-no-crap attitude that isn’t uncommon among true New Yorkers and compared to some of the others interviewed who are more circumspect, her testimony is rather refreshing.

The music business is full of sharks and Berns rapidly learned to swim with them. His friendship with Carmen de Noia was helpful to his career; while de Noia wasn’t a made man he was the sort of guy who knew a guy, if you get my meaning. Ilene had danced in a club owned by Morris Levy, not just the chief of Roulette Records but the front of the mob in the music business. Bert wasn’t uncomfortable rubbing elbows with these sorts. De Noia also is interviewed for the film and other than Ilene is the most interesting tale-teller of the lot.

Berns died way too young, his heart finally giving out on December 30, 1967 at the age of 38. It’s always the brightest flames that burn out the soonest. Moreover, he knew that his life would end prematurely – he beat the odds in surviving as long as he did. In fact, “Piece of My Heart” is actually about his heart condition, but there’s no need to feel sorry for him. In his time, he nurtured and developed the careers of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison; he also was one of the most prolific and successful producers in the history of Atlantic Records; he remains one of the few people who ever partnered with the main trio of Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler and Nesuhi Ertegun in founding Bang Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic and the namesake of the documentary.

His legacy is mainly in the music and the soundtrack is packed with it. It’s music that made the music of today what it is. You may not know the name of Bert Berns but you know his music and chances are, you love it. One viewing of this film and you won’t forget his name anytime soon. I guarantee you won’t want to.

REASONS TO GO: A soundtrack that is absolutely stellar. One of the forgotten geniuses of rock and roll finally gets his due.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is basically a parade of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and lots and lots of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Berns-written hit “I Want Candy” got its title from a risqué book by Terry Southern.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Circus Kid

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The Family (2013)


Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

Michelle Pfeiffer is en fuego!

(2013) Comedy (Relativity) Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Dominick Lombardozzi, Jimmy Palumbo, Stan Carp, Vincent Pastore, Jon Freda, Michael J. Panichelli Jr., Paul Borghese, Anthony Desio, Ted Arcidi, David Belle, Raymond Frnaza, Christopher Craig, Cedric Zimmerlin, Dominic Chianese, Oisin Stack, Sissi Duparc, Elba Sette-Camara. Directed by Luc Besson

You can choose your friends. Sometimes, you can choose your enemies. You can never choose your family however – and sometimes that might be just as well.

Giovanni Manzoni (De Niro) is an American living in France. Not just an American, however – an American from Brooklyn. And not just an American from Brooklyn – a mob boss from Brooklyn. You see, he ratted on the mob and has been taken into the witness protection program, hauling his none-too-thrilled-about-the-situation family along for the ride.

That ride has taken them from the Riviera to Normandy, shepherded by their very put-upon handler Stansfield (Jones) and his agents Di Cicco (Palumbo) and Caputo (Lombarozzi). Stansfield urges the family, now calling themselves the Blakes, to blend in but they’re having a hard time with it, as usual. Pretty wife Maggie (Pfeiffer) longs for good old American comfort food and when she asks the local grocer where the Peanut Butter is, he disdainfully tells her they don’t carry that sort of  thing there, then insults her in French to a couple of old biddy regulars at the cash register, not realizing she speaks French. Maggie doesn’t lose her temper however – she just improvises a bomb and blows up the store.

Pretty daughter Belle (Agron) is sweet as pie, but when a group of French guys drive her to the local park and make it clear that they expect her to put out under the impression that all American girls are sluts, she beats one of them to a bloody pulp with a tennis racket and takes their car. Industrious son Warren (D’Leo) quickly horns in on the black market pill and cigarette market at school, and attracts the ire of the school board while Belle attracts the eye of a callow young teaching assistant named Henri (Stack) to whom she wants to deliver up her virginity on a silver platter.

As for Giovanni, calling himself Fred, he masquerades as a writer which inspires him to write his memoirs which might not be such a good idea considering how much he knows. He also is frustrated with the quality of the town’s water which he traces back to an industrial plant on the edge of town, leading him to take extreme solutions in hand.

All of the Manzonis want nothing more than to go back to Brooklyn and resume the lives they once led but as it turns out Brooklyn is coming to them. Well-armed, as a matter of fact, and none to happy about their situation.

Besson is without a doubt the finest action director/writer/producer in France and his tutelage has turned out several other fine directors in the genre, such as Olivier Megaton. This is a cross between an homage to Martin Scorsese’s mob films (and Scorsese serves as a producer here) and a farce along the lines of Married to the Mob (which Pfeiffer memorably starred in). At times the two genres rest uneasily together but for the most part Besson keeps the balance between the two light.

This is the kind of role that De Niro has done a million times before and there is a familiarity to him playing this kind of character that gives the audience an easy in to the film. He has the good fortune to have Pfeiffer to play off of – the chemistry between the two is note-perfect and they make such a good team it makes me wonder why they were never cast together before (they actually were, in Stardust but shared no scenes together in that one).  Pfeiffer is regal here, a mafia princess with a fierce protective instinct, a touch of pyromania and a volcanic temper. She is every bit De Niro’s equal here which is a rare occurrence.

Agron, best-known for her work on Glee has a meaty role here and she sinks her teeth into it with gusto. Belle is a bit of a homicidal maniac under the veneer of a sweet girl next door. Her love for her family is fierce but she, like the rest of her brood, is a more than a little sociopathic and more than a little out-and-out crazy.

There are plenty of action scenes but it is the farce that works best here, the fish out of water scenes that have the ugly Americans trying to make things work with the even uglier French. Sure, there are plenty of stereotypes here (I’m sure there were lots of Italian-American societies cringing at their portrayal here) but it’s all in good fun and not meant to be taken seriously. As entertainment goes, this isn’t half-bad. If you have no plans to catch it in theaters, it might well be a good fit on home video instead.

REASONS TO GO: Wry sense of humor. De Niro, Pfeiffer and Jones are all stellar.

REASONS TO STAY: Kind of cliché. Predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some violence, plenty of bad language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the film society debate attended by Jones and De Niro, the wrong movie is sent and they instead view Goodfellas which De Niro starred in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/25/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Analyze This!

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Missing Person