The Man Behind the British Invasion

What would the music industry look like without Sid Bernstein? We might have been spared the recent Depeche Mode concert at Ramat Gan Stadium, for one, since it was his idea to hold rock concerts in sports stadiums. And perhaps Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would not have worked so hard on the fantastic harmonies in "Pet Sounds," because he would not have been familiar with the Beatles, the inspiration for and main catalyst of the work, who Bernstein first brought to the United States. Many more years might have passed before white American audiences were exposed to Ray Charles and James Brown had Bernstein not been the first to take the risk with them.

"Sid Bernstein Presents," a biopic of the Jewish-American promoter and music producer that is being edited in Israel, seeks to give Bernstein, now 91, his rightful place in the history of pop music.

"I met Sid's son and we went to visit him," says Jason Ressler, who directed the film together with Evan Strome and is editing it in Tel Aviv with Gil Globus. "He told us about his experiences with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and while we were talking to him he got a call from his lawyer, who told him he was about to be evicted him from his apartment. And then we decided to start filming."

This is the first full-length film by Ressler, who like Bernstein is American and Jewish. That first conversation with Bernstein was over 10 years ago. The film includes interviews with James Brown, Paul Anka, Shirley MacLaine, Phoebe Snow and Lenny Kravitz, among others.

Over the years there were delays due to problems with obtaining music rights. The money ran out, and the tremendous difficulty in obtaining permission to use the archive clips in it overshadowed the entire project.

"While new companies and Internet sites can use music and historic video clips easily, documentarists face many difficulties," Ressler related. "The result is that documentaries, especially ones about film and music, get stuck in legal bureaucracy. Without this kind of documentation, American music loses its history. Many documentarists are aware of this losing battle and give up before they even start."

The results of this surrender - inferior made-for-television movies with a regular cast of talking heads and stock photos instead of original archival material - are screened regularly on the entertainment and music TV channels. Ressler says he has still not solved the problem that effectively halted work on the film, which is why he plans to show it first in places where the law works in his favor. He is also considering allowing free downloads over the Internet, which would prevent him from earning a profit or even covering production costs but would at least get it out to audiences.

The project was abandoned, but last spring, while living in Tel Aviv and working on a novel, Ressler recognized that Israel could be his salvation. "I realized that I could finish the film here on account of the low costs and also because of the high professional level of the film industry here."

"Sid Bernstein Presents" will premiere later this month at the Documentary Edge Festival in New Zealand. Ressler hopes to begin Israeli distribution as early as this spring.

"Sid was worried that no one would want to be interviewed for the film, but almost everyone agreed," Ressler says. "Peter Noone, of Herman's Hermits, said in the film that Sid was part of the revolution. In the 1950s, the music was very formatted and over-produced, with commercial sponsors and ties and jackets and artificial snow on television. Sid helped musicians fight that. He said people should just be allowed to play their music and opened the door for them. But now, in the era of huge corporations, commercialized music is coming back. They thought that they won this fight, but now we are back in the 1950s format," Ressler says.

The importance of Sid Bernstein, Ressler stresses, is that he affected the way we all consume music. He personifies the way in which infrastructure and platforms change musical content and influence culture, no less than the musicians themselves. Stadium bands, such as U2, would not exist had Bernstein not decided to organize the Beatles' concert at New York's Shea Stadium 1965, which was to become the defining moment of Beatlemania and was the first stadium rock concert.

Ressler also wants to stress Bernstein's groundbreaking role in U.S. race relations. He took a real risk when he brought black artists to mainstream (not exclusively black) venues. In the film James Brown says, "Sid was doing what the Kennedys and Martin Luther King discovered later, but Sid had already begun to do it through music."

Ressler adds, "It was dangerous at that time and he lost a lot of money on it. I don't think he ever cared about money." Another big part of Bernstein's career was the "British invasion" - the massive import into the United States in the early 1960s of British bands, which changed the face of rock. In addition to the Beatles, Bernstein brought the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Herman's Hermits and the Moody Blues, among others, across the "pond."

And where would we be without the Israeli connection? In 1964, the same year that Bernstein brought the Beatles to Carnegie Hall, he also arranged for concerts there featuring Shoshana Damari, Yaffa Yarkoni, Shaike Ophir and other Israeli artists. "It was just as important to him," says Ressler. "He has a connection to Israel, even though he's never been here."

Today, at the age of 91, Bernstein continues to do the same thing he's been doing since the 1960s: He goes to clubs, looking for the next group to promote and popularize. His glory days are behind him and his economic situation is a mess, but Ressler does not think that Bernstein failed: "Dylan, Sid's son, described it very well. He says that Sid is more artist than businessman, and that's why he doesn't have money despite his many successes. His head is in the clouds, and in this business sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sid's not perfect. His family suffered a lot so that he could realize his dreams, and his younger children resent him for it."

"Sid is a wonderfully weird person," notes Ressler. "He's weighed over 130 kilograms since he was 16; he has no regular sleeping or eating habits. When I visited him recently, he was up until 2 A.M. every night promoting bands. He doesn't feel the pressure and money doesn't worry him. I've almost never seen him in a bad mood. He never took drugs. He doesn't drink alcohol or smoke. I don't even think he drinks coffee."