There’s a moment in this movie, when Solomon Burke is sitting on his throne, telling the story of “Cry To Me,” when he opens his pipes and starts to sing a cappella, that your heart will melt and your body will tingle because you know you’re in the presence of talent.
It’s hard to quantify, but you know it when you experience it.
A lot of the people in this flick are dead, not only Berns himself, but Burke and Joel Dorn and Berns’s wife Ilene. Yet some of the people are still alive, like Richard Gottehrer, never mind Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Van Morrison. And there you have life itself. You start off energetic, you think you know everything, you’ve got nothing but dreams, but then life takes over, with its twists and turns, and although nobody survives, sometimes the records do.
And a lot of Bert Berns’s records are part of the culture.
But most people have no idea who Bert Berns is.
Joel Selvin wrote a book, a passion project that got good reviews but that’s a hurdle for most fans, turning the pages. And there was a musical, which was close but not quite there, and on Broadway it’s got to be there to make it. And now there’s this film. Imperfect, but oftentimes riveting. It’s a telescope into a past we know that no one talks about anymore. We’re concerned with today’s transitions, from analog to digital, coughing up all our privacy to corporations that control our fate. But way back in the fifties and sixties there was little light shined upon the entertainment business, all we saw was the end product.
But this product blew our mind.
Dropping the needle on “Piece Of My Heart,” hearing “Brown Eyed Girl”… This was when records were the essence of the culture, two and a half minutes of pure soul. And a lot has been forgotten since the advent of the Beatles, but there was a scene before the British Invasion, and even the Beatles covered Berns’s “Twist and Shout.”
So he’s a fan. He’s a hanger-on. He’s got a girlfriend but she leaves him because he makes no money. His mother thinks he’s lazy. This is what it is to be an artist. There are defined steps in business, but not in artistry, you’ve got to believe in yourself and continue to pursue your dream, even though you might be laughable to those around you.
Bert loved the Cuban sound. Even went to the island. Started a company with Sid Bernstein, ultimately the legendary promoter of the Beatles, but it failed.
And it’s not like he had a college degree, there was no fallback position, it was only forward.
And then he started writing and producing hits.
And when you have hits, the doors open, everybody wants a piece of you.
But that does not mean they’ll pay you.
The villain in this story is Jerry Wexler. Who knows what the truth is, but he’s portrayed as a conniving gonif here.
You see in music everybody’s untrustworthy, because they came from nothing, and you need an enforcer to get what you want, and it’s still the same, although not as much, because the business has been corporatized, not only the major labels, but Live Nation and AEG too. Used to be a promoter ripped you off, Live Nation can’t stiff you, it’s a public company. But getting all you deserve is still a chore in the music business.
Is that what killed Bert Berns?
I don’t know. Just like I don’t know his exact relationship with the Mafia. To a great extent this film is hagiography, and everybody’s got a dark side, but it’s glossed over here.
You see 1650 Broadway. The newly-christened Strangeloves discover Rick Zehringer and his band on the road and cut “Hang On Sloopy,” one of Berns’s s compositions, and then they drive to Grossinger’s on the high holidays to play the acetate for Bert, who says it’s a number one smash, and then it is.
Back when a number one was known by everyone.
You know these tracks. There’s little footage of Berns in the studio, little audio, but so many of the survivors and newly-dead are there to testify, to tell the story, and oftentimes this was the height of their career, they’ve been running on fumes for decades, but these peaks sustain them.
That’s the music business. It churns you up. It ain’t a job, one that you do for decades wherein you climb the ladder. It’s hard to get in and it’s hard to stay in, but if you ring the bell everybody knows you’re name.
Except for Bert Berns.
But maybe they’ll know him now.