Monday, June 24, 2013

NXNE 2013 Film Review - AKA Doc Pomus

Immediate close up shot of an older gentleman speaking about how his physical limitation were not going to old him back. He was going to be the first disabled heavyweight boxer able to knock out opponents with one punch.  The speaker is Jerry Doc Pomus reading from one of the writings from his journal as he speaks singles (45's) and album covers from some of the biggest acts from the 50's though the 70's flash across the screen.  In his opening address Doc speaks of a desire to go up to someone on the street and say you know I wrote the song you're singing, humming or whistling to but never did as the person would probably not believe it. The name may not be familiar but the songwriter Hall of Fame member wrote hits such as This Magic Moment for the Drifters, A Teenager in Love, Andy Williams biggest hit  Can't Get Use to Loosing You, a slew of Elvis Presley songs including Surrender and Viva Las Vegas and Pomus' biggest hit Save the Last Dance for Me.

The scene shifts to his early life born; Jerome Felder Doc contracted polio at the age of 6 forced to use crutches from that point forward. Doc who was a very active child before the incident took to standing in the background by walls to hide the fact that he had to use crutches. He began to listen to a radio at night in bed drawn to blues music because he identified with the struggles portrayed.

At 17 he went to the renowned Pied Piper Blues Club headed up on stage unplanned and started to sing hunched over his crutches launching his short lived singing career. His most famous side (as singles were called in the day) was Alley Alley Blues a catchy and melodic song that should have been a big hit. Doc realized that the songs he sang did not match the visual the audience expected therefore he turned to writing.

Directors Peter Miller and Will Hechter use several old photographs to present the early days of Doc Pomus. Old photos of the Brooklyn neighbourhood,  the camp where his family sent him to avoid the polio outbreak and ironically the spot here he caught the disease. Family photos of his father mother and younger brother and the apartment building where the Felders lived.

Doc was the king of the New York Hotel lobby. He was particularly associated with the Legendary Forest Hotel.  Often planting himself in the lobby for the majority of the day as people gravitated toward him. One of these people was Willi Burke who was drawn into his circle and eventually became his wife.  Doc would write songs and try to sell them to the publishing houses. One of these Young Blood  he found in a jukebox reworked as a song for the Coasters when he was on his honeymoon with Willi.  He called the publisher he sold it to who remarked  guess you want some money and gave him his first real royalty cheque.

The other main structure associated with Doc is the Brill Building.  The famous New York City landmark located at 1619 Broadway Avenue that was full of publishing companies and songwriters in different offices from the basement to the 11th floor.  At the peak of his writing prowess in the mid 60's Doc ran the building having exclusive access to the penthouse with his writing partner Mort Shuman.

The Directors recount the story mainly though recorded interviews from the 80's featuring Pomus. The recordings are authentic grainy and sometimes lacking clear sound. Another large part of the piece are the reading from Doc journals that show he was tortured more by his need to write songs over his physical afflictions. In one of the 80's interviews,  he describes that he did not want to write songs but he had to write songs. Doc explains that it's a terrible force that is sometimes out of control which  makes you keep writing even though you will not make any money and know no one will care.

The film produced by his daughter Sheryl tells the story of a man who's songs you know even though his name may not always appear on the record. It looks at all aspects of his life, the early years, his peak in the mid sixties, a fall into reclusiveness into the seventies and a rebirth co writing with Dr. John in the mid to later part of that decade and into the eighties. The film mentions some musical heavyweights such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Phil Spector but these subjects are not really developed.

The documentary has some good moments but could use some better pacing and audio qualities. The narrative also suffers from a narrow field of view.  If you're a fan of the ballads of that era it's a good view but not one that I can recommend for the general viewing public.

** Out of 4

AKA Doc Pomus | William Hechter, Peter Miller | Canada / U.S.A. | 2012 | 98 Minutes.

2013 NXNE Festival.

Tags: Polio, Blues Singer, Song Writers Hall of Fame, Brooklyn,  The Brill Building, 1619 Broadway,  New York Forest Hotel, The Coasters, The Drifters, Ben E. King, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles.