COOL HAND DOC: A Review of AKA DOC POMUS
AKA: DOC POMUS
Directed by PETER MILLER, WILL HECHTER
Conceived by SHARYN FELDER
Produced by WILL HECHTER, PETER MILLER, SHARYN FELDER
Edited by AMY LINTON
By JASON WALDROP
Polio put Jerome Felder, a.k.a. Doc Pomus, on crutches at age six. Those crutches went on to give a hard limp to “Lonely Avenue” (Ray Charles hit, 1956) and continued to prop up Felder until a bad spill in 1965 permanently confined him to a wheelchair. Reviewers have sometimes gone hoarse calling one film or another “life affirming”. And, yes, the Doc Pomus story, the story of a Jewish blues musician who was only “technically white”, is about overcoming obstacles. But Pomus himself wrote, “I was never one of those happy cripples who stumbled around smiling and shiny-eyed, trying to get the world to cluck its tongue and shake its head sadly in my direction. They’d never look at me and say, ‘What a wonderful, courageous fellow.’”
Put this life in tune. Not the same as “put it in balance”. Although Lou Reed, a close friend of Pomus, reads occasional passages from Pomus’ journals, there is no omniscient creature narrating A.K.A. DOC POMUS. Instead, writers, performers, family members, friends, students, promoters, and colleagues describe the stories behind the tunes—what was going on in Pomus’ life and how those events—and the misery, joy, heartbreak attached to the events—played into the song. Not too many minutes go by before it becomes clear that Doc Pomus is the tune, and the soloists make up a huge, bizarre and loving Greek chorus.
“Songwriting is like gambling,” - Doc Pomus.
As a kid, Jerome dreamed of compensations for his crippled legs: to become a heavyweight boxing champ (during the reign of Joe Louis), a lover of beautiful women, and, thanks to Big Joe Turner (“Piney Brown Blues”), a blues singer. Performing in clubs, penning tunes, and cutting sides, Jerome Felder renamed himself Doc Pomus. “Doc” because—choose one: he admired the blues singer Doctor Clayton; because he was too young to call himself Professor; because a physician can heal others but not himself; because he needed to keep his real name off the marquee so his mother wouldn’t know. All this should already be more than enough to make anyone want to learn about Doc Pomus, the man who wrote “Save the Last Dance for Me” (inspired by holding his crutches while watching his newlywed wife, actress Willi Burke, dance, at his urging, with his father, brother, and cousin.)
Director Peter Miller (Q&A, 2013 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival) explained that Sharyn Felder (Doc Pomus’ daughter) had collected enough material for a sixty-five hour documentary on her father, one hour for each year of Pomus’ life. Miller was quick to praise his team and, in particular, his filmmaking partner, Atlanta based editor Amy Linton, for her expertise and key role in giving shape to A.K.A. DOC POMUS. Discussing method, Linton explained that the songs were used to structure the film, clearly the underlying narrative strategy of the 98 minute documentary. Less obvious is the filmmaker’s sleight of hand in dealing out the archival material, interviews, award ceremonies, scrapbook photos, home movies, telethon performances, commercials, and sheet music—which fan out on to the screen in rapid rhythmic visual editing. The Doc Pomus catalog comprises more than 1,000 titles. Throughout the film, selections from this grand total ground and punctuate a smooth flow of illustrating images.
The still images are stroked, scrolled, marked, fanned out, scanned. Taking their cue from Pomus’ life, they wait to be discovered like notes for lyrics written on blank wedding invitations or they suddenly slide under the door like the notes and poems that Pomus wrote to court Willi Burke when they both lived at the same hotel. These images combine to make longer rhythms, spanning decades of Pomus’ life and the lives of the viewers as well. The editing touch, whether the sequence is rapid-and-subliminal or liquid-and-patient, is always light, witty like Pomus himself, and can shift the story in a second from the gambling table to close magic, from “take your cards and place your bets” to “is this your card?” An interviewee commenting on a song returns to play as a lover or friend. A Billboard playlist anticipates a favorite restaurant menu. Filling up—on love, ambition, and food—figures big in the film, the last act beginning with a joint birthday party where the Felder brothers, Jerome and Raoul, share a cake made in the shape of their childhood Brooklyn apartment. But this editing technique, so much like shuffling, dealing, hiding, and playing cards, goes beyond craft, the skilled ways that the sounds and images inform each other. Its ingenuity knows and respects Doc Pomus’ life, referring to and redeeming for the viewer Pomus’ darkest years, the decade when he had given up composing and was hosting gambling parties for a living at his apartment in the Westover Hotel.
The number of suits in the Pomus deck (family, health, fantasies, hotels, favors…), as well as the number of cards within the suits, is hard to guess, let alone count. Naturally, many of the cards played will be surprising. Pomus contracted polio at the Connecticut summer camp where his mother sent him to protect him from a Polio scare in Brooklyn. What would that maneuver teach a young boy about “escape”? He spent a year in the polio ward, listening to the head physician walk up and down the aisle, reviewing his patients, “operate, don’t operate, operate, don’t operate…” Pomus’ entrapment was often the subject and mood of his songs. But didn’t he make others recognize and benefit from their own traps? Dion comments on the hit that Pomus gave him (“Teenager in Love”): “No teenager wants to sing about being a teenager”. Pomus’ edit: “Why must I be a teenager in love?” Indeed, Why must I be the thing that I obviously am? The lessons learned from our fantasies, however, have to be searched out. As a “boxer,” Pomus planted himself in his wheelchair in the center of the ring, the lobby of the Forrest Hotel across the street from the Brill Building, the home of the music industry, and held court with coffee and doughnuts, warmth and advice, taking on all comers, becoming Doc Pomus, The-Man-Who-Was-Culturally-Unbound.
At the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, an audience member remarked that the life was so impressive that perhaps a major player should pick up the story to make it into a flashy biopic? The question begs to be reversed: why can’t more biopics follow the model of A.K.A. DOC POMUS? This documentary shows us enough of Doc Pomus on camera that we don’t have to wonder if Robert DeNiro or Robin Williams have put on enough weight to play the part. Nor do we have to wonder if real people were harmed by making up composites in the interest of plot and time. Again, you could say, A.K.A. DOC POMUS is a story about overcoming obstacles, but, like Doc himself, the film is much slyer than that. For one thing, it is determined to soak every tear from your eyes. For another, the film gives new twists, new dimensions, to the “life affirming story.”
You will leave the theater knowing the answers to questions, including, “Who did Doc tell not to die in his john?” “Who sang `Save the Last Dance for Me’ to Doc’s daughter?” And, best of all, “Why did Doc leave in a huff?” The “longer rhythms” here can be understood in the sense of returning a card to the deck in order to play it again later. In A.K.A. DOC POMUS, there are two cases where one man’s death resurrects another man’s career. In the first, Elvis’s death brought about reissues and increased sales of Elvis’s records. That revenue, in turn, boosted Doc’s own royalty checks, allowing him to give up gambling and return to songwriting. The other, the second, life-affirming case, occurs late in the film. Death, like almost every other character in this story, is related to every other player. Death is so often absurd, and absurdity itself can be the great motivator.
We hear Doc Pomus say that songwriting is like gambling. Certainly the game of music production is, but the song itself can be medicinal, a three minute cure, both for the songwriter and the person turning on the radio. In the Pomus story, limitations shaped into a three minute popular tune is the product of strange partnerships and circumstances. And the relationship between business demands and creativity is intriguing stuff, but there’s more to this story. Returning the favor—a.k.a. Is this your card?—where more often than not in Pomus’ case no original favor had been perceived was one of Doc Pomus’ great gifts. Music saved his life, so Pomus used the phone, his smarts, and any resource he had at hand to champion the poor, neglected, and forgotten. It is that generosity of spirit that the filmmakers make clear in A.K.A. How successfully? When you leave the theater, you know that the documentary of his life, A.K.A. DOC POMUS, is itself a glimpse of the world that B.B. King commissioned. “There must be a better world somewhere.” For most of us, A.K.A. DOC POMUS is a better world than we’ve yet known.
Jason Waldrop is the author of the dystopian novel, THE LAST CIGARETTE.
Thanks to Frank Kogan for the title of this piece.