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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Muscle Shoals


The fruits of success.

The fruits of success.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.

From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.

In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.

First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.

During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.

Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.

The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.

REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frozen

Cadillac Records


Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

Adrian Brody smirks after winning a bet with Jeffrey Wright.

(TriStar) Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Gabrielle Union, Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Short, Emmanuelle Chriqui. Directed by Darnell Martin

Once in a great while, fortune and talent come together in a great confluence that allows the most unlikely of people to join together to become legends.

Leonard Chess (Brody), a Polish émigré to Chicago, has grand ambitions. Hoping to marry the love of his life Revetta (Chriqui), he opens a bar on the predominantly African-American South Side of Chicago. Hoping to draw in the local crowd, he hires local talent to play his stage. One of the first guys he finds is a gifted guitarist who goes by the name of Muddy Waters (Wright).

Muddy had been a Mississippi sharecropper before being “discovered” by Smithsonian-Folkways recording archivists, and being prompted to move to Chicago to play the Blues. His wife Geneva (Union) puts up with the rough living conditions and the late nights, turning a blind eye to his many infidelities.

So impressive is Muddy’s prowess that Chess buys a recording studio and founds a recording company he names after himself. However, Muddy’s career really goes into overdrive when he finds gifted harmonica player Little Walter (Short). Walter has a unique style that employs electric amplification, something only just coming into style back then. However, his abrasive personality and drinking problem leads him to be fired from Muddy’s band, although they still record together. Walter’s solo career, however, takes off on its own.

With songwriter/engineer Willie Dixon (Cedric) in the house, Chess has assembled a winning team which only gets better with the arrival of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and the great Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Berry’s unique blend of blues, country and r&b creates a bastard child that can only be labeled “rock and roll.” His music begins to cross over lines to white audiences and becomes Chess Records’ most successful artist.

Add into this mix the incredibly talented (and incredibly troubled) Etta James (Knowles) and you have a recipe for game-changing music, as well as for ego-driven conflicts. As the ‘60s dawn and musical tastes begin to change, the influence of the Chess artists becomes apparent even as their record sales begin to dwindle. Not everybody, sadly, will make it out alive.

Martin has a cinematic love letter to an era and to a record label in particular. Music underwent a profound change in the 1950s, and Chess and Sun Records were both at the forefront of that change – the birth of rock and roll out of country (Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and the blues (Chess Records). Only Motown Records in the ‘60s would have the same kind of effect on the musical landscape that these two labels did.

Leonard Chess actually co-founded the label with his brother Phillip, who for some odd reason is not even mentioned here. In any case, Brody gives a solid performance as the label head, who gave his artists Cadillacs when they completed their first record, but who may have played fast and loose with royalty payments.

Knowles, who has shown some real acting skills in Dreamgirls and Austin Powers: Goldmember, continues to impress with a powerful portrayal as Etta James. She captures the artists’ outer bravura as well as her inner fears and demons. Short, similarly, captures the larger-than-life aspects of an artist who burned brightly and was snuffed out all too soon.

It’s a shame that in a movie about Chess Records, little of the original music from these artists was used. Instead, the producers chose to have the songs re-recorded (Knowles does her own vocals on James’ hits ”At Last” and “I’d Rather Be Blind”), mostly by the actors playing the artists. While it’s admirable that the actors did their own singing, I’d rather have heard the original versions by Muddy Waters, Etta James and Chuck Berry.

The filmmakers obviously have a reverence for Chess Records and its legacy. They gathered a strong cast and gave them some strong material to work with. This is a movie that helps illustrate the development of modern music, which is of more than passing interest to anyone who loves it. While the movie didn’t fare particularly well on its theatrical run, it is more than worth checking out. Yes, it’s an imperfect glimpse into the past but ultimately, a satisfying tribute to a label and the people on it who, together, changed music forever.

WHY RENT THIS: The story of Chess Records is an important historical event in the history of modern music and the movie covers it respectfully. Solid performances from an impressive cast, especially Knowles and Short.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plays a little fast and loose with the facts, and oddly, doesn’t use the music from the actual performers and instead recreates these iconic songs with the actors lending their voices.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sex and sexual situations, as well as drug use and some racially-motivated violence. Not for small fries.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Leonard Chess was originally to have been played by Matt Dillon, but he had to bow up due to scheduling conflicts. Adrien Brody wound up taking the part.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes an interactive playlist maker that allows you to create and share playlists of the songs in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Zombieland