From left, singer Neil Diamond and songwriters and producers Ellie Greenwich, Bert Berns, and Jeff Barry, circa 1966 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

From left, singer Neil Diamond and songwriters and producers Ellie Greenwich, Bert Berns, and Jeff Barry, circa 1966 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Did the Beatles write “Twist and Shout”? No, it was Bert Berns. Did singer/songwriter Van Morrison also produce “Brown Eyed Girl”? No—Berns was the man.

This was a guy in a hurry. Spurred on by the heart ailment that would kill him at age 38, the tunesmith and record producer burned to make classic songs and rack up monster hits. His crowded, busy life and underappreciated 1960s musical legacy form the subject of this documentary made by his son Brett. It will screen during the opening weekend of the DOC NYC showcase.

Born to an affluent Jewish family in the Bronx, Berns fell in love with Cuban music early on, frequently visiting Havana and even claiming to have met Fidel Castro there. Latin influences suffused his soulful, smoldering compositions. He also cultivated a swashbuckling hipster persona that helped to open the doors to Broadway’s famed Brill Building.

After a false start or two, Berns was writing and producing catchy R&B tunes for the Exciters, the Isley Brothers, and Van Morrison’s first band, all the while building a pop music empire. The film positively overflows with Berns’s gorgeous music and lesser-known arrangements of pop standards (including one intriguingly misguided Phil Spector version of “Twist and Shout” performed at warp speed) keep the soundtrack from turning into a golden oldies roundup.

Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Cissy Houston, Solomon Burke, and lots of crusty, colorful old-New York music business insiders offer their takes on the man and his work. Berns’s wife, Ilene, a former go-go dancer, comes off like a tough broad with a heart of gold, clearly still missing her charismatic husband. A portrait of Berns emerges not only as a generous personality but as a gifted producer who instinctively respected talent and knew how to get the best from singers and session musicians.

Over the years Berns’s Bang! record label racked up smash after smash. His songs were covered by legends like Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones. But shadows lurked to darken this seemingly effortless outpouring of creativity. Vengeful Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler nearly destroyed Berns’s career in a power play over money. Stories of rip-offs and betrayals abound. The filmmakers dwell at length on Berns’s links to the mafia; appreciation of these ties depends on whether you find lowball thuggery and intimidation charming (I do not). His death on New Year’s Eve 1967 ends the film on a somber note. One can’t help but wonder how Berns would have faced sweeping changes afoot in the music business, where singers and songwriters were gaining more creative control over their output.

Gruff narration by Steven van Zandt gives Bang! The Bert Berns Story a suitable hard-boiled edge. Like its subject, the film is a little old-school but full of scrappy vitality. Oh, and killer tunes. Sit back and let the music free your soul.

Directed by Brett Burns and Bob Sarles
USA. 94 min.
Narrated by Steve Van Zandt