AKA Doc Pomus
Runs Fri., Nov. 1–Thurs., Nov. 7 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 98 minutes.
“You gotta live something in order to sing something.” Those words, spoken here by legendary soul singer Ben E. King, might be the blueprint for the blues, but they also serve as a lodestone for this doc about Jerome Felder, a disabled Brooklyn Jew who became one of the most influential songwriters of his generation.
His improbable story, captured in interviews, music, and archival clips and photos, is naturally transfixing. Stricken by polio at a young age, Felder fell in love with the blues after hearing Joe Turner sing on the radio. By the 1940s, he was sneaking into African-American blues clubs as a teenager, propped up on crutches, singing the blues that he lived. To keep his disapproving mother off the scent, Felder adopted the performance name Doc Pomus. It stuck through the next 50 years of writing and recording.
Filmmakers William Hechter and Peter Miller tell his story straight, weaving old interviews with Pomus (1925–1991) with remembrances from family, friends, and a handful of rock’s early architects. All this is spliced among entries from Pomus’ journal, mesmerizing in their lyrical beauty and given special poignance by being read by Pomus’ friend Lou Reed, who died this very week. About his early love of the blues, Pomus writes, “It wasn’t a monkey on my back; it was a midnight lady with a love-lock on my soul.” The filmmakers trace Pomus’ unlikely victories, pockmarked with fits of self-doubt and the humiliations of polio, on the way to fame and family. But this is no hagiography: Pomus is shown struggling with women, gambling, and food, which makes his blues all the more believable.
Besides the heartbreak and redemption is the jukebox full of great songs. We hear early tunes Pomus wrote for his childhood hero Turner, hits he authored for Ray Charles, and teeny-bopper classics penned with songwriting partner Mort Schuman. The doc’s rich soundtrack also includes “A Teenager in Love, ” a litany of Elvis songs (including “Viva Las Vegas”), and the radio hits Pomus wrote for King and the Drifters (“This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance,” etc.). Each song has a unique Pomus story behind it, as his daughter, Sharyn Felder, will explain at the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday screenings.