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Jane Enkin

Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival Movie review: A.K.A. Doc Pomus

by Jane Enkin, June 19, 2013

A.K.A. Doc Pomus

Directors: Will Hechter and Peter Miller

Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival

The 2013 Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival featured three very different films on themes of music.  The Ballad of the Weeping Spring (reviewed earlier) was a beautiful, light-hearted drama/comedy with fabulous Mizrachi musicians -- I'd love to see it again.  The very popular "Hava Nagila:The Movie" explored the journeys of one Ashkenazi tune.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus is a documentary biography of a decidedly American musician.  This is an adoring, heart-filled look at a beloved songwriter.  The film was produced by his daughter, and she and many others speak of their love and admiration for Doc Pomus in "talking head" interviews. In addition, there are still photos, old footage, and lots of music.

Doc Pomus is the stage name of Jerome Felder, born in Brooklyn.  His life and ambition were shaped by polio.  "I was going to be the first heavyweight boxer on crutches," he said in an old interview.  He learned how to navigate the New York subway system as a teen, and hung out at George's in Manhattan, listening to the blues.  One day, management asked what he was doing there, since he was clearly underage, and he said he was a blues singer.  "There was no such thing as a white Jewish 17 year old blues singer," he recalled, but his chutzpah got him on stage and he was a hit.  This first phase of his career, as a singer, led to a string of performances and recordings of his original songs.

That was in the 1940's.  Then markets changed and younger, more attractive singers were in fashion. In the decades following, with various highs and lows, he reinvented himself as a songwriter for rock and roll singers and crooners.  His biggest hits were sentimental songs like "Save the Last Dance For Me" and "This Magic Moment."

The film spends lots of time focussed on the music itself, but more on relationships -- with his parents and brother and sister, with his ex-wife who still clearly cherishes his memory and with his children.  A girlfriend is interviewed, and many younger musicians like Carole King who relished his company.  I really enjoyed the interviews with other significant pop music figures.  The great writers Lieber and Stoller were charming together.  One of my favourite moments came when the now- adult Dion, of Dion of the Belmonts, famous for "Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?", played acoustic guitar, singing "Could I ever find peace for my troubled mind?"

Doc Pomus thrived on co-writing with younger musical partners.  In the famous Brill Building in New York, home to many important pop music publishers, he worked with a series of young men.  During one of his late career comebacks, he had a great collaboration with Doctor John, as shown in a nice home video.

Younger musicians revered him. "He was our buddha, our guru."  And he continued to revere the older blues musicians, such as  Joe Turner and Jimmy Scott,  who had inspired him.  He worked politically to make sure that older musicians received royalties for reissued recordings and new recordings of their songs.  He was also involved in reviving their careers as performers.  These efforts were intertwined with his support for Black artists and civil rights issues.

There a few dark moments in the film when Felder's diary, read by Lou Reed, reveals the loneliness and isolation behind some of his romantic lyrics.  There is also some real poignancy to be found as we hear how deeply Doc Pomus is still missed and loved.

Although the film-makers examine the context and meanings of Doc Pomus' lyrics, I would have enjoyed learning more about his approach to constructing the music. How did the styles get established?  What were the elements of a hit?  What made a song right for Elvis, B. B. King or any other star? 

A.K.A. Doc Pomus is not a masterful documentary, but this pieced together film is of interest to anyone who cherishes the pop music of the '50s and '60s.

Congratulations to the organizers, donors and volunteers who made the 2013 Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival a big success.  A majority of the films played to sold out houses and a good time was had by all.


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