Thursday, January 26, 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Man Who Would Be Polka King

The music industry and scandal go hand in hand. From organized crime seeing easy marks in profitable night clubs and venues to troubled, drug-addicted artists spiraling out of control to record company executives engaging in white collar crime like payola to help their product sell better, people involved in music often find themselves on the wrong side of the law. But by no means is this impropriety relegated to those scenes most often associated with crime, namely rap and dance music, and in fact has little to do with the content or the perceived "outlaw" character of any particular genre. In the end, corruption is more entwined with money than with art, and even a cheesy, ostensibly family-friendly style like polka is not immune to people trying to make a buck off of it in a less than legal way.

Released in 2009, but screening Friday at Turner Hall as part of a series called "DONK-umentaries with Bob & Brian" (which, despite the name, disappointingly has nothing to do with the Blackout Crew), The Man Who Would Be Polka King entertainingly recalls the biggest scandal to ever rock the polka world. At the heart of the trouble is Jan Lewan, a Polish √©migr√© who chased his musical ambitions to Pennsylvania, where the large population of eastern Europeans allowed him to build a profitable polka empire. Unfortunately, the love of the people, and even a Grammy nomination in 1995, proved not to be enough for Lewan, who used his considerable popularity to launch a large scale pyramid scheme that swindled hundreds of his fans out of their paychecks and pensions. It's a fascinating tale of greed and delusion, one that begins with a talented and driven young Soviet defector and nearly ends in a vicious prison shanking, with plenty of detours, including his alleged rigging of a beauty pageant, in between.

But while it may be an interesting story, it's also a relatively small one, which leads filmmakers Joshua Brown and John Mikulak to make some odd choices. Chief among them is the decision to hire an actor to play a fictional Stan Tradowski, who narrates the proceedings from a bar stool at the local VFW hall. It's a distracting and unnecessary framing device, especially since the interviews with Lewan himself, who has always professed that he had no idea he was doing anything wrong, even in light of several warnings from the government, reveal a much clearer view of his pathological misunderstanding of the American dream he sought so feverishly. Being a few years old, the film is already available for free on Hulu, but given the $10 all-you-can-drink special going on during the screening, The Man Who Would Be Polka King, with all of its head-scratching weirdness, is probably best enjoyed in the company of a large, well-lubricated crowd. 

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