• Clear Lake Productions
  • Doc Pomus performing at the Pied Piper in 1947
A.K.A. Doc Pomus
(Will Hechter and Peter Miller, 2012, US/Canada, 98 mins.)

If you don't know Jerome Felder, aka Doc Pomus (1925-1991), you know his songs, and if you don't know his songs, you have a lot of catching up to do. I grew up with his handiwork, and if you were to ask people my parents' age, they'd tell you the same.

A short list includes "Lonely Avenue" (Ray Charles), "This Magic Moment" (the Drifters), and "Can't Get Used to Losing You" (Andy Williams).* They're among the American songbook's most heartbreaking entries, but they're not without hope, which simultaneously summarizes the tumultuous life of their creator.

Co-directors Will Hechter and Peter Miller build A.K.A. Doc Pomus around archival interviews with Pomus, so he appears to narrate his own story with an assist from his family, his associates, and music writers, like Elvis scholar Peter Guralnick.

* Sonic Boom does a fine version of "Lonely Avenue" on his first, post-Spacemen 3 album as Spectrum. Most people my age (or younger) are probably more familiar with the English Beat's sprightly cover of "Can't Get Used to Losing You," but I'm just old enough to remember watching The Andy Williams Show on TV. Doc Pomus gave the sweater-wearing smoothie his biggest hit.

Afflicted by polio at the age of six, Pomus would spend the rest of his days on crutches, with braces, or in a wheelchair. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a small, angry man who failed at most everything he tried, so music became Doc's solace. Naturally, he gravitated towards the blues, both as a singer and a songwriter, and he did well on the local circuit, but wider fame would not be forthcoming. Everything changed when he bonded with his hero, Big Joe Turner, for whom he wrote several songs. Says Pomus, "He started my career and, I would say, my life." (Years later, in Turner's time of need, Pomus would return the favor.)

Hechter and Miller proceed through Doc's marriage to Wilma Burke, a musical theater performer, and his partnership with co-writer Mort Shuman, with whom he moved in more of a pop direction—though they called it "rock & roll" then—but not without losing his blues roots (Latin rhythms also became a Pomus-Shuman signature). They set up shop in NYC's famed Brill Building, alongside Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Neil Diamond, and countless other soon-to-be-famous names.

From there, the filmmakers look at individual songs, their interpreters, and the stories behind them. I won't give anything away, but if the real-life incident behind "Save the Last Dance for Me" doesn't break your heart, I don't know what will.

Clear Lake Productions
  • Doc Pomus with Mort Shuman: partners in music and tweed
  • Clear Lake Productions

Throughout the 1960s, there would be more heartbreak to come due to a combination of bad luck and bad decisions, but the 1970s and '80s brought new relationships with like-minded musicians, such as Dr. John and Willy DeVille, and a second chapter in his life began. As one speaker puts it, "He was cool again."

Truth be told, I didn't need to watch this film in order for Hechter and Miller to convince me that Pomus was a tremendous talent. That's evident in the songs he wrote, but his non-judgmental attitude becomes a story in and of itself. Pomus worked with a lot of troubled individuals—Dr. John and DeVille were heroin addicts—but he put his faith in them when other music biz associates wouldn't.

In light of Lou Reed's passing just last week, it's particularly sad to see him on screen (his relaxed readings from Pomus's clear-eyed journals form part of the narration), but it's just as heartening to see him sharing a laugh with the great Jimmy Scott, one of several under-appreciated singers that Pomus championed.

Pomus, much like friend and fellow New Yorker Reed, didn't judge those who looked or felt like outsiders. He celebrated them. He spoke for them. He was one of them.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus, which opened on Fri, plays The Grand Illusion through Thurs, Nov 7. Pomus's daughter, Sharyn Felder, will be in attendance Sun and Mon.