Filmmaker fights for screening rights

March 2, 2010 by Miriam Bell
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Movie director Jason Ressler, currently in Auckland for the premiere of his film Sid Bernstein Presents at the 2010 Documentary Edge festival, says that he and his co-director Evan Strome have struggled to find financial backers for their film because of litigation fears relating to the usage of music and concert footage.Sid Bernstein is a legendary, groundbreaking Jewish music promoter best known as the man who brought the Beatles to America.

Sid Bernstein

Ressler told J-Wire: “Unfortunately, our situation is not unique. While news organisations and websites can get away with using music and film for no cost, documentary makers cannot. The result is that film projects are simply being crushed through legal means, and many are just not getting made. This means that we are losing important stories and pieces of our cultural history because of copyright issues.”

Sid Bernstein’s fascinating story could easily have been lost. Although little known these days, Bernstein (now 91) was once one of America’s biggest music promoters and managers.

He was the mastermind behind the British Invasion of America, bringing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, the Animals, the Kinks and many other UK bands to the US for the first time. He was the first promoter to cross racial lines and introduce major black and Latin musicians [like Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Tito Puente] into the mainstream. And it was his ideas which led to the first stadium concert [with the Beatles at Shea stadium], the first major charity concerts and the first major anti-war concerts.

Ressler says Bernstein paved a unique path in the music industry and maintained a long career by taking risks that others would not. “Sid’s dreams have often become a reality while, at other times, they have remained unrealised fantasies which have led to hard times for him and his family. He has lived a pretty amazing life, and he has been a major cultural influence, and yet not very many people know about him.”

The documentary project, which eventually turned into a 10 year labour of love for Ressler and Strome, was kick-started during the course of one of the duo’s regular visits to Bernstein’s son, who was an old college friend of Ressler’s.

“I had known Sid for years but one day he was sitting there with us, telling us all these incredible stories about all these great musicians and bands and, at the same time, he was getting phone calls asking for money he owed and trying to evict him from his apartment. It was just such a contradiction, and it suddenly dawned on us that this would all make a great documentary, so we dropped everything and got to work.”

Ressler views the film as an exploration of the complexity of the American dream. Bernstein is more of an artist than a businessman, and the film is about the way artists work with their dreams and despite their suffering, he says.

Jason Ressler with James Brown

“This story is neither that of a fallen man nor a total success story. Life is complex and we have tried to capture this complexity. Many of the documentaries we see about well known personalities try to put them in a cookie cutter mould of success or failure, but life simply isn’t like that, and we all know this in our daily lives.

“Sid has succeeded, failed, made people happy, sad, and frustrated, and he has been all of those things himself. Just like all of us have, whether we’re famous or not… But Sid is also a great promoter and a great Jew. His life story is a major piece of raw history which deserves to be told.”

According to Ressler, Bernstein’s childhood influenced and informed his actions and his ideology throughout his life. Growing up in the ethnically mixed neighborhoods of Harlem and the Bronx, he lived with his parents and shared a room with his grandmother with whom he only spoke Yiddish. His youth was steeped in both the Jewish-American and the economic struggles of the early 20th century.

“Sid hates anti-Semitism and has always been a staunch supporter of Judaism and Israel. He doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, he hates violence, and he has always actively supported anti-racist and peace causes. In fact, when I interviewed James Brown for the film [in what turned out to be Brown’s last interview before his death], he said that Sid was doing what the Kennedys and Martin Luther King discovered later, but Sid had already begun to do it through music.”

Ressler and Strome were able to film interviews with many big names from the entertainment world – including James Brown, Tito Puente, Lenny Kravitz, Shirley MacLaine, Steven Van Zandt, Arlo Guthrie, Dick Clark, music mogul Ahmet Ertegun, and Woodstock promoter Michael Lang – for the documentary. In the course of their research, they also discovered a great deal of rare footage and footage which has never been seen by the public.

However, due to the threat of legal and copyright issues, obtaining financing has been a problem throughout production.

To overcome this, Ressler and Strome have had to raise much of their funding through donations. One of their most effective fundraising tools has been the film’s website – – which collects contributions from anyone who wants to ensure that Sid’s story is told.

“After finishing the editing of the film in Tel Aviv last year, Sid Bernstein Presents… is about 99 percent complete – thanks to the generosity of everyone who donated. Now, we only need to give it a few final polishing touches and it is ready to go,” says Ressler.

“Unfortunately, we still need to raise more funds in order to be able to widely show and distribute the film, which we would love to do while Sid is still alive. If we can’t raise more funds, it may only show in New Zealand at this documentary festival. For this reason, I want to encourage anyone interested in supporting documentary making to help us out.”

* Sid Bernstein Presents… is showing throughout March, in Auckland and Wellington, at the Documentary Edge Festival 2010. For information on session times visit


One Response to “Filmmaker fights for screening rights”
  1. John Silmore says:

    This is a great article. I went to their site and made a donation — I hope it helps!

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