Friday, October 30, 2015

A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)

Canada / USA, 98 minutes, documentary
Directors: William Hechter, Peter Miller
Photography: Antonio Rossi
Editor: Amy Linton
With: Sharyn Felder, Willi Burke, Raoul Felder, Geoffrey Felder, Shirlee Hauser, Alex Halberstadt, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Dr. John, Gerry Goffin, Dion DiMucci, Ben E. King, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Dave Marsh, Joan Osborne, Lou Reed, Jimmy Scott, Marshall Chapman, Shawn Colvin

There's a certain style to A.K.A. Doc Pomus that raises it several notches above typical musical biographies. A lot of that is due to the subject at hand. Doc Pomus (born Jerome Felder) was one of the great 20th-century pop songwriters, a point on which there is wide agreement—indeed, part of the appeal of this documentary is the wide swath of people appearing to testify, who are obviously sincere. As it happens, Pomus also has an interesting biography, a lifelong New Yorker born and raised in Brooklyn, and a victim of polio since the age of 6.

By all appearances the driving force behind the picture was his daughter, Sharyn Felder, an executive producer and an interview subject herself, along with her mother, brother, uncle, and stepmother. There's no need for whitewashing anything, and it's not really a hagiography either. The regard others have for Pomus, even 20 years and more since his death in 1991, enables the film to be honest about his human weaknesses and provide a context for the music, and the joy, that he created. In the end the movie is mostly about the music, and the joy.

Not that it was exactly joyful music. Part of Pomus's enduring charm was his deep steeping in the blues. He idolized Big Joe Turner, and became a regular club performer as a blues singer in New York before he was 20 (he took the name Doc Pomus because he was worried his mother might happen to see the marquee of one of the venues he played). One of his early successes as a songwriter came in 1956, when he was about 30, with "Lonely Avenue," which Ray Charles recorded. Pomus started to look at songwriting even more seriously with his first hit the next year, "Young Blood," co-written with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and recorded by the Coasters.

In a way, those two songs represent two poles of Pomus's songwriting art, an ability to be open and vulnerable balanced by a kind of controlled bawdiness. Indeed, one of the persistent musical themes in this picture is "Lonely Avenue," as it captures so well the seeming contradictions, this stark, stumbling, haunted song which reveals everything. The singer has nothing to lose, because he "lives on Lonely Avenue."

The next hit of significance came when his collaboration with Mort Shuman began, in the 1959 song for Dion & the Belmonts, "A Teenager in Love." It's one of my personal favorite songs of all time. At one point I uncovered a stash of some 50 covers of it, in a wide range of international styles. The thing just holds up. By so flagrantly using the word "teenage" (in an era with movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf) it seemed almost crass about its bid for chart success. But get to the song, and it's just gorgeous, especially with someone like Dion to put it away, full of angst and insecurities and yet a countervailing steadiness in itself. It soars.

It was also where the floodgates opened for Pomus and Shuman, and just about where this documentary begins to fly high: "This Magic Moment," "Sweets for My Sweets," "Can't Get Used to Losing You"—there are illuminating stories about these and many songs. Perhaps the greatest is the story behind "Save the Last Dance for Me," which I already knew as a great song. But the story of how Pomus used the night of his wedding with Willi Burke as his inspiration, when he was unable to dance with her because of his lifelong disability, makes it powerful. It gets a big and wonderful treatment here, including one sequence that makes it worth hanging around for the credits. Elvis Presley took a shine to him with the first song Pomus wrote for him, "A Mess of Blues," and Pomus went on to write some of his greatest in the '60s, including "Little Sister," "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame," "Suspicion," and "Viva Las Vegas."

One of the great virtues of this movie is the way it keeps surprising you with how much Pomus accomplished, how good he was. The interviews are solid, including lots of archival footage with Pomus himself, who always exudes a funky warmth. It's not hard to see how he was the center of attraction in crowds of people, which is pretty much the way he appeared to live his life ("Lonely Avenue" notwithstanding). He had his career in the Brill Building era with Shuman, which ended in the '70s. Then he had a decade making his living hosting poker games in Manhattan. He made and continued to make alliances with many interesting musicians, some of which went back to the '50s and '60s, and included Dion DiMucci, Lou Reed, and Willy DeVille. He wrote more songs for Ray Charles and B.B. King. He made a profound connection with Dr. John. He held informal songwriting classes, which attracted Reed, Marshall Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne, and others. One of Lou Reed's better albums, Magic and Loss from 1992, was in part about his friendship with Pomus and Pomus's death.

There are even scenes from the funeral here, where Jimmy Scott's performance earned him a record contract and shot at a comeback. The most searing performance, however, though we only see it for a few seconds, looks like it might have been Dr. John doing "My Buddy." Pomus was loved in his lifetime and is still, and he deserves to be. This movie tells you all about it.

Top 10 of 2012
1. Lincoln
2. A.K.A. Doc Pomus
3. Compliance
4. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
5. Searching for Sugar Man
6. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
7. The Master
8. The Lords of Salem
9. Amour
10. Django Unchained

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