There are two kinds of biographical documentaries, the kind about a person we know and want to learn more about and the kind about a person we don’t know but should be aware of (according to the filmmakers, anyway). Few films are exclusively one or the other, because different viewers have different levels of familiarity with different subjects. Someone could presumably go into Marley completely ignorant of who Bob Marley was, while someone else might watch xi with full appreciation already of who Rodriguez is.
I mention two music docs since the overlap likely occurs more so with this genre. And because this is a review of a doc about a notable songwriter, Doc Pomus. In certain circles, that’s a very famous name. But for a lot of us, the lyricist behind such tunes as “Viva Las Vegas,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Suspicion” and many others is not only obscure, but we wouldn’t even have thought all were penned by the same person. We can now fix this oversight with A.K.A. Doc Pomus.
As far as profiles go, this one is as conventional and exalting as they come, but to an extent it caters sufficiently to both the audiences. I was delighted to learn about the polio-stricken kid from Brooklyn who started out as a rare white teenage handicapped Jewish blues sensation, popular enough on the stage yet uncommercial from a record company’s standpoint, then found more mainstream success behind the music as one of the great pop poets of the Brill Building. After a while, however, it’s hard to keep interest in all the anecdotes and later-years endeavors and struggles that aren’t so remarkable.
It doesn’t help that a lot of those second-half chapters go nowhere, such as one involving John Lennon’s acknowledgement of Pomus and subsequent attempt at a collaboration, which also must not have gone anywhere. This bit is clearly just an excuse to stress the subject’s reputation and allow interviewees to name-drop major figures in irrelevant memories. Bob Dylan is another who is talked about a lot. He was apparently a huge fan of the Pomus-penned Dion hit “A Teenager in Love.” He even worked with Doc on a song. It would have been great to hear about all this from the man himself.
Anytime a documentary story has to do with a living person, that person should be on screen to tell it. It’s not always easy, but filmmaking shouldn’t be. Directors William Hechter and Peter Miller do offer a lot of the supporting players in Pomus’s life, including his ex-wife, his kids, his brother, Dion, Dr. John, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne and Shawn Colvin (we also see and hear from Pomus via old interviews). But most of the storytelling unfortunately comes from the man’s biographer, Alex Halberstadt. Why? We might as well just read the guy’s book. As far as I can tell, Halberstadt never even knew Pomus. So let’s hear from those who did.
When a film relies so much on a single author, it displays a laziness as far as research goes. A.K.A. Doc Pomus features other faulty traits that make us wonder if there was even a film here. Especially in the first half there’s a lot of cheap stock footage used as illustration, which isn’t relevant enough and is just filler. Throughout we see photographs repeated over and over. Again, there’s not enough original material for a movie. At one point for too long we watch Doc’s brother and cousin ride a taxi to see the old neighborhood. Do we care about their nostalgic trip? Not really. At least not as early as it comes in a film that for many is an introduction to its subject.
Unless your documentary is about a definite household name, you need to build up and earn the interest of those who aren’t familiar with the person. First you show who he is or was with enough proof of relevance that we’ll follow his story anywhere, backward and forward, where he came from, if that’s significant, and what became of him, if there’s substance to it.
A.K.A Pomus informs and appeals very well for a while, although this is more because the story is compelling even if its telling isn’t always. We become absorbed in stuff about his marriage and partnerships with Mort Shuman and Phil Spector and numerous comments about his social charms and surprising sex appeal. Then it begins to jump through events rather quickly and doesn’t flow as well from one to the next. Our investment fades.
As with so many films of this kind, I’m glad to have seen it. Lesser quality documentaries can still be educational, which is one of the reasons I love nonfiction more than fiction. Even when they’re bad or unnecessary, it’s very rare that I regret watching one. This is no exception, because I now know who Doc Pomus was and I never would have (nor will I now) read Halberstadt’s book. And getting to know someone through a few pictures and a soundtrack of the songs they wrote will always be greater than simply reading their Wikipedia page.
The Upside: Useful in introducing us to one of the major songwriters of the 20th century and showing that important side of pop music history
The Downside: Not a very cinematic documentary, adding to the evidence that not every notable figure needs, deserves or is capable of getting a film about them
On the Side: A.K.A. Doc Pomus won the Grand Prize at the 2012 Stony Brook Film Festival