Sometimes during Peter Miller and Will Hechter’s docu, it feels as though half the music world has gathered to pay heartfelt tribute to Hall of Fame songwriter Jerome Felder, aka Doc Pomus. The portrait emerging from this deft assemblage of homemovies, work tapes and interviews is further invigorated by 1980s interviews with Pomus and a dynamite soundtrack of his rock ‘n’ roll perennials, like “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “This Magic Moment.” A strong candidate for limited release, the pic thrusts a forgotten pioneer back into the limelight while illuminating a part of rock history.
After Felder contracted polio at age 6, shattering dreams of athletic prowess, a recording of Big Joe Turner singing “Piney Brown Blues” (shown here in rare archival footage) redirected his aspirations. Debuting as a startling anomaly, a fat Jewish 17-year-old blues singer on crutches, Pomus performed in various Greenwich Village clubs and cut some 50 78-rpm singles before switching to songwriting.
In one of his extensive taped interviews, Pomus describes songwriting as “a terrible force. You have to keep writing and writing and you know you’re not going to make a living at it; you know it takes all your time, and you know nobody gives a damn.” Certainly, at first, not only did songwriting pay poorly, but credit was often absent or ascribed to someone else. Pomus’ efforts, however, soon gained prominence in jukeboxes and on Billboard charts, if not always under his own name.
“Lonely Avenue,” performed by Ray Charles, brought Pomus a measure of recognition. He teamed up with a young friend of his cousin’s, Mort Shuman, and together they wrote hits like “Teenagers in Love,” “Sweets for My Sweet,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Can’t Get Used to Loving You” for artists as diverse as the Coasters, Ben E. King, Dion, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams and B.B. King. At the height of their popularity in the ’60s, Pomus and Shuman were given a palatial office in the Brill Building, which they traded for dingier, more bare-bones Brill digs. Anecdotes about famous admirers like John Lennon and Bob Dylan abound.
Yet the docu focuses less on the songwriter than on the man, perhaps because Pomus’ daughter Sharyn serves as one of its producers. Thus the underscoring of Pomus’ marriage and divorce starts with “Save the Last Dance for Me” and ends with “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” Pomus’ journals, read aloud by his good friend Lou Reed, trace a similar but less sentimental link between work and biography.
But the dominant reason for the film’s emphasis on personal attributes seems to reside in Pomus’ tremendous generosity of spirit. Hanging out in hotel lobbies, he soon became a lodestar for down-and-out or up-and-coming musicians whom he helped with advice, residuals, advocacy or whatever they needed. Performance artist Penny Arcade ventures the theory that Doc Pomus died so that jazz singer Jimmy Scott, whose comeback he vainly championed, could sing at his well-attended funeral and finally snag a record contract.