By Vincent Ball
Afro-Cuban rhythms blared through the speakers while pictures of a Jewish songwriter strumming on his acoustic guitar flashed across the screen.
That songwriter was Bert Berns, and attendees of Port Jefferson’s Theatre Three on Monday, April 24, had the opportunity to learn about the man behind some of pop music’s most time-honored hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Brown Eyed Girl,” as an early screening of “Bang! The Bert Berns Story” took place as part of the Port Jefferson Spring Documentary Series.
“I think viewers gained knowledge of a brilliant, important songwriter/producer who has basically been overlooked in the annals of 60’s pop music because of his premature death,” Wendy Feinberg, Co-Director of the Port Jefferson Spring Documentary series, said. “We also gain knowledge, especially in the case of this documentary, of all that goes into producing and making a ‘record.’”
Directed by Bert Berns’ son, Brett Berns, the documentary featured interviews with Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, and Van Morrison, as well as an emotional interview with Berns’ wife, in an effort to provide insight into the personal and professional life of the musician.
“It’s heavy when you hear other people and feel their connection to Bert,” Cassandra Berns, the daughter of Bert Berns and one of the film’s producers, said. “To know that they kept the sadness all these years is really powerful.”
For the Berns family, the film – although it didn’t conceal the less attractive parts of Bert Berns life, like his connection to the mob and his falling out with Neil Diamond – was created with a singular purpose in mind.
“We made this film because we knew, that only by telling this very dramatic life story, would our father get recognized for his musical legacy,” Brett Berns said. “It was about getting him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We made this film to achieve that goal. That he got in last year was the greatest achievement we could’ve hoped for.”
Brett Berns, whose father died of heart failure at the age of 38 when he was a toddler, was on hand in Port Jefferson, along with Cassandra Berns. After the film was shown, they engaged in a Q&A with the audience that was moderated by a representative of the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, Tom Needham. The host of WUSB’s “Sounds of Film,” the nation’s longest running film themed radio show, Needham recognizes the importance of a music documentary.
“Great documentaries, like Bang! The Bert Berns Story, entertain while at the same time shining a light on an overlooked subject. In this case, the remarkable career of Bert Berns,” Needham said. “Film is an important tool for music historians because it gives them the wide canvass and the time needed to tell in-depth stories about music pioneers like Bert Berns.”
For Brett Berns, the music documentary served as the ideal supplement for his father’s creations. Previous works within the art form also had a great deal of influence on how he decided to craft the film.
“A music documentary can do so many different things. Standing in the Shadows of Motown was the film that really ignited us, and we thought we had to make that kind of film for our dad,” Brett Berns said. “Music documentaries are also time capsules. If you look at The Wrecking Crew or some of the other great music documentaries out there, they aren’t just a reflection of the music, but of the time and place that music came from. That was one of our goals, as well, with this film.”
In order for a documentary to be successful, Geoff Pingree, a Professor of Cinema Studies at Oberlin College, explains that the film must be “carefully structured to balance dramatic movement with a depth of insight.”
Viewers of the film in Theatre Three experienced that dramatic movement as a range of emotions were on display, with the crowd engaging in a chorus of laughter or the occasional collective sigh.
“I liked how [the film] covered his songwriting and personal life so in depth,” Matt Almont, who attended the film’s screening in Port Jefferson, said. “I’ve known these songs my whole life, but I never knew how important Berns was to their creation. This film unmasked the man behind the hits. That was the most interesting part for me.”
The songs written and produced by Berns were also noteworthy for challenging the status quo throughout pop music during the 1960s.
“Unlike his contemporaries, Berns wrote songs that plumbed his own anxieties and fears,” Joel Selvin, who published a biography on Berns in 2014, said. “He has a lot of singers crying – ‘Cry to Me,’ ‘Cry Baby,’ – and he even wrote rather directly about his mortality in ‘Piece of My Heart.’ I think his heart disease drove him into spheres of darkness few of the other writers dared in the context of what were largely teenage records.”
Having died so young, Berns himself nearly faded into obscurity, but his lyrical depth is one of the primary reasons his collection of songs continue to remain a prominent part of the music industry today.
“These songs are pop standards,” Henry Haid, a regular gigging musician from Long Island, said. “Every band is expected to know tunes like ‘Twist and Shout,’ and ‘Piece of My Heart,’ because, even in 2017, people still request them.”
Moving forward, Brett and Cassandra Berns will be working on turning their father’s story into a feature film or cable television series.