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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Death Valley (2015)


Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

Upon reflection, some parties bring out our worst images.

(2015) Thriller (Indican) Katrina Law, Lochlyn Munro, Victoria Pratt, Nick Tarabay, Kelly Hu, Jeremy Ratchford, Juliette Beavan, Cela Scott. Directed by T.J. Scott

It is said that in the desert that there are no shadows to hide in and that the scorching sun boils away the pretense and exposes the real person inside. I’m not sure who said it. Maybe it was just me.

A quartet of attractive people are driving on a brand new road in Death Valley on the way from a charity party in Hollywood to a spur-of-the-moment wedding in Vegas. The road is so new, in fact, that it isn’t open to the public yet but for producer Billy Rich (Munro), Hollywood Golden Boy, rules don’t apply and every door is open. He is the prospective groom and star actress wanna-be Annie Gunn (Law) is the bride. Along for the ride are married couple Roy (Tarabay) and Jamie (Pratt) Dillen, who won tickets to the star-studded exclusive party on a radio station promotion and have befriended Billy and Annie. Presumably, they will be the witnesses at the wedding.

One thing that is true about the desert is that oddball things can happen at any moment. A scantily dressed blonde (Beavan) emerges from out of nowhere and starts shooting at the people in the car. Rich, who is behind the wheel, swerves and manages to hit the blonde before skidding off the road.

The blonde is a goner. So is the car, which the blonde managed to perforate in some vital places before expiring. Of course, there is no cell service in the middle of nowhere – and because the road hasn’t opened yet, not much hope of any good Samaritans showing up from either direction. The old road is said to be about five miles away, paralleling the new road. With no real choice, the quartet begin hoofing it, taking with them the champagne they were going to toast with at the wedding.

The further they walk, the more frayed their nerves get – and the more secrets get revealed. Like a good noir film, layers begin to be scrubbed away by the gritty sand exposing further layers below. Will they find the road and presumably rescue? Or will the journey there kill the lot of them?

Those who are paying attention to the opening scene will know the answer to that. Veteran TV director Scott has a good feel for suspense, building slowly without turning it into a tension fest. This is more than a slow burn than a quick flame. He also makes excellent use of the environment, giving us some really beautifully desolate footage of the desert and giving the audience an excellent feel for how vast and forbidding an environment it is.

The movie’s problems tend to lie in the characterizations. It’s difficult to find someone to identify with in this movie because all of the main characters are pretty rotten, particularly when their guard is let down after the downing of much booze and pills. While it is kind of enjoyable to watch some sleazy Hollywood types get their comeuppance, from a human standpoint it isn’t easy to watch people suffer even though they may well deserve it.

It is also not easy to watch people make bad decisions, some of them incomprehensibly bad. For example, one of the women given an opportunity to change from her party dress and heels into something more appropriate refuses, and goes out walking on the desert sands in her heels. While I admire the grit of women who walk in heels because it requires balance and a certain amount of fortitude, I would think that heels would be absolute torture on sand. Not that I would know. In any case, I don’t think any sane person would choose that nor would anyone in a survival situation allow vanity to trump practicality.

Another thing I would have recommended is a little more focus on the Billy Rich-Annie Gunn relationship particularly in flashback. We see a little bit of them interacting at the party but we never get a sense as to why someone who is as likely commitment-phobic as Billy would be would agree to pull the marriage trigger with someone he just met. We get that Annie’s sexuality is a large part of the reason but we don’t really get to see it on display except for one scene in the desert. A little more exposition would have been nice on this matter.

Most of the technical aspects of the film are strong, but a caveat – I’m a fan of 8mm, the band that delivers the soundtrack here. While this isn’t their best work, it was definitely a plus for me to hear them doing their thing on a movie soundtrack. There are those who likely won’t think it is the advantage that I do. C’est la musique.

The ending is on the dark side, but that’s what happens with noir. You don’t get many uplifting, feel-good movies of the year with noir. This is a movie about a dark descent of four people who are More Than What They Seem, another noir trope. Fans of the genre should be sufficiently pleased although the movie has its share of flaws. Nonetheless, a fine effort for those looking for some sun-baked (literally) off the beaten path entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautifully desolate cinematography. Dark ending. Soundtrack by 8mm.
REASONS TO STAY: Lack of sympathetic characters. Some weak moments in the script. A little bland for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexuality and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Law and Tarabay have both appeared in the television shows Arrow and Spartacus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lifeboat
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Walk

Brother’s Justice


Dax Shepard can't believe himself as an action star either.

Dax Shepard can’t believe himself as an action star either.

(2010) Mockumentary (Tribeca) Dax Shepard, Nate Tuck, Tom Arnold, Ashton Kutcher, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, David Koechner, Seth Green, Michael Rosenbaum, Ryan Hansen, Jess Rowland, Steve Tisch, Andrew Panay, Greg Siegel, Josh Temple, James Feldman, Laura Labo, Jordan Morris, Chevonne Moore, Rome Shadanloo. Directed by David Palmer & Dax Shepard

I have to admit that there are times I’m not sure what a filmmaker is up to. Dax Shepard is a case in point here. This appears to be a satire on the moviemaking process, the culture of enabling star egos and of vanity projects in general. I mean, that seems to be the case. But I’m not 100% certain after seeing this.

Basically, it’s a mockumentary starring Shepard, who has appeared in dozens of movies as a comic actor in supporting roles (like the oafish boyfriend in Baby Mama) as well as on the acclaimed TV show Parenthood. Here, he’s made the decision that it would be more lucrative for him to be an action movie star rather than a comic actor mainly because the competition is less fierce. He writes a Chuck Norris-style movie complete with drug dealers, bikers, sibling warriors and a climactic fight going down a mountain.

His aim is to star in it himself, even though he has no action skills whatsoever. He goes into training in a dojo whose sensei is less sure of Shepard’s prospects (and abilities) than Shepard is himself. Shepard’s pal Nate Tuck is there as a producer and inevitably gets stuck with the tab for expenses Shepard is racking up.

Trying to see this turkey to the studios proves to be formidable but Shepard is undaunted. He approaches A-listers like Favreau and Cooper as well as Tom Arnold to help lend credibility to his movie. At last he realizes that he is going to have to do it himself.

There’s plenty of room for laughs here, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of them. Part of the problem is that Shepard makes himself so unlikable, so egotistical and so out of touch with reality that you’re rooting for him to get his ass kicked. That can work in certain situations but not here and not now.

The cameos are basically the best part of the movie which is kind of a damning fact in and of itself. The bottom line here is that if you like Dax Shepard’s work, you’re going to love this. If you don’t – and I’m one of those who finds him more obnoxious than funny – than you’re not. And I didn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty cameos. Some nice satire on the Hollywood system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If Shepard isn’t your cup of tea you’re really going to hate this one. Sometimes makes you feel more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few violent scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was an Audience Award winner at the 2010 Austin (TX) Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for Guffman

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Fast & Furious 6