AKA Doc Pomus, co directed by Peter Miller and William Hechter and opening in Los Angeles next Friday, Saturday and Sunday (10/11, 12 & 13) at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills, is a brilliant concoction of music and biography, history and art. Making use of an incredible archive of stills, video and sound recordings (including interviews with some of the pre-eminent composers, lyricists and musicians of the past 60 years) all expertly woven together by editor Amy Linton, the film is inspirational both in its subject and its composition. In fact it is difficult to review the film as simply a biography of one of the giants of our time – it is its own work of art, speaking so poignantly and eloquently about the human spirit, the experiences of life, love, family, loss and redemption that you may not even notice your eyes welling up until you find yourself wondering if you can dry them without anyone catching you in the act.
Which isn’t to say it is a sad film – it isn’t by any stretch. If anything, it is a celebration. One of the great things about the age of songwriters, back before performers were expected to write their own material, was the idea that even if you couldn’t play well or carry a tune in a bucket, you could still write a song, maybe even a good song, maybe even a hit. You could use music to explore and express your responses to life’s joys and heartaches, pleasures and failures. Doc started out as a singer, but in the end he was more like one of us. A guy who had some thoughts, ideas and feelings about life and took the time to craft them into artistic expressions that resonated among audiences and across decades. Ray Charles sang his songs. So did Elvis. And Dave Wakeling. Bruce Springsteen.
I really started wondering about just who Doc Pomus was when I began buying sheet music and guitar and piano anthologies of the great songs of the 50’s and 60’s. He kept showing up as the composer or part of the writing team on so many of the titles I wanted to learn. Turning pages and working through the books and the drawers at the old Hollywood Sheet Music store my awareness went from pleasure to surprise to nothing less than awe. Not only had he written an entire catalogue of classics – he has spanned styles and genres and even centuries. How distant in sentiment and tone are ‘Teenager in Love’, ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ and ‘Lonely Avenue’? They are as real and true as any work of art ever crafted, yet how different are the experiences of love into which they each draw us in their own distinctive way. Once you start to get your head around all of that, then ponder for a moment that the same guy wrote ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You‘ and ‘Viva Las Vegas’.
When you take the time to learn a song as it was written, you learn something about the composer. You pay attention to where the fingers are going on the fret board – you also begin to know something about what the heart that set those fingers in motion was feeling. Add a 7th note to your chording at just the right spot and grip the neck of your guitar a little tighter, maybe give it a shake or two – and you have to ask yourself: was that my energy, pain, joy or rawness or was it the composers? Before I had seen his face or heard his voice I started to learn a little bit about Doc Pomus. You could tell he loved life in a big way – and you could tell he understood love (both the happy and the unhappy kinds) from just about any angle an artist might choose to approach it.
From the beginning his name spoke of coolness. You earn the name Doc and if it sticks to you it’s pretty much guaranteed you learned something in the schoolyard of life if not between the schoolhouse walls.
I didn’t know if he was white or black, but from the soulful blue tones, even in his more pop sounding compositions, I suspected the latter. Sounds build into words and words create images. My still incomplete image of this new addition to the pantheon that included Berlin and Hammerstein, Styne and Hart , Cahn and Mercer was of a solitary giant – maybe a slender man but a mountain of genius, alone with a tumbler of ice and whiskey, hunched over a piano with a cigarette, a pencil – and some paper that waited patiently or furtively, depending upon the theme he was exploring, to have notes put in place. You knew that he knew what he was writing about. But beyond that he was a man of mystery lost in the shadows of an age that would forever remain the heart and soul, the proving ground and the divination rod of the next 50 years of popular music. But who in the world was Doc Pomus?
Born Jerome Felder, and afflicted for life from a childhood battle with polio, the film’s subject had a heart so big it is hard to imagine any tragedy being strong enough to deter him from greatness. When he decided to try his hand as a blues singer he had to find a name – both to enhance his stage credibility and to keep his mother from seeing his given name on the marquees of the clubs where he was singing. He borrowed Doc from an early blues idol, Doctor Clayton.
And Pomus? “It just sounded right.”
From that point Miller, Hechter and Linton take us on a journey that holds as many smiles as tears and as many accolades as slips and falls. The same guy who John Lennon asks to be seated next to at a British Music Awards banquet is accidentally tipped out of a wheel chair by his close friend and so loses what little mobility he has been able to salvage from his early bout with polio. The artist who fears displacement as a craftsman of music and song with the emergence of singer songwriters like Bob Dylan and Lennon & McCartney is later approached by Dylan for advice to help him overcome writers block.
There are a few documentaries that actually come to equal their subject matter and stand as important artistic contributions in their own right. This film is destined to be one of those. The first two times I watched it I was fascinated by the story, the music, the great clips from some of the most brilliant composers and artists of all time. And then I became fascinated with how the filmmakers told the story. How they imbued it with such a strong sense of place and time – and how, without hitting you over the head with it they let you know how important place and time are to the story they are telling. The magic of New York, of Harlem, of Little Havana and of the Brill Building – that wonderful mysterious structure where the composers that shaped the foundations of modern music and musical theater crafted the songs whose DNA can be traced in the works of Lennon & McCartney, Roger Waters and Jay Z– are all as pertinent and as palpable as your feet tapping in time to one of Doc’s tunes.
Filmed in co-operation with Doc’s family (his brother Raoul and his son Geoffrey and daughter Sharyn, who also served as producer on the film, add a very touching tenderness with their reminiscences) AKA Doc Pomus is alternately informative, delightful, thought-provoking and inspiring. Like Doc’s songs it first engages its audience in the safe middle ground of common experience and then with the skill of a talented artist, analyst or boxer moves close and inside – and before you know it is hunting you on your own turf. What Doc accomplishes in the face of disability, poverty and the incredible challenges of the music business is deftly and entertainingly told in such a human and loving way that we begin to ask ourselves: What holds us back – from creating, from living, from loving? They are questions that Doc must have raised in the mind of everyone who encountered him, who was invited into his inner circle of night hawks, drinkers and gamblers, singers and musicians. Those same questions are woven into the audio and video threads of AKA Doc Pomus and are gently aimed at us in every frame of the films all too short 99 minutes.
If you have enjoyed any aspect of popular music over the past 60 years – you will see and hear some of it in this film and marvel at the spread of Doc’s influence. Two years ago I sat with some of my closest friends in life on a small hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park enjoying the closing of the Saturday portion of that wonderful free festival ‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ . Patty Griffin was ending what had been a great set of music accompanied only by her producer – musician, composer, arranger Buddy Miller. She motioned to her left and a tall lanky fellow walked onstage to join them. Robert Plant spoke for a moment about what a journey a life in music could be. Given his grace and humility and his acknowledged anxiety to get it right there was no sense of this small occasion being a come down from having been the singer for what at one time was the most popular band in the world. The love and respect for the moment, the audience, for each other and for the music was almost visible in the approaching dusk. The song they sang was Doc Pomus’ ‘Lonely Avenue’.
Forget best documentary of the year – AKA Doc Pomus is the best film I have seen this year.
This Friday, Saturday and Sunday co-director Peter Miller, Editor Amy Linton and Doc’s daughter Sharyn Felder will be on hand for Q&A’s following the film.
For more information on the film and the filmmakers: http://akadocpomus.com/the-film/
For show times and tickets: http://www.laemmle.com/films/37232