The Best Songwriter You Never Heard Of: AKA Doc Pomus

10/04/2013 3:00 PM |

AKA Doc Pomus
Directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter

If a novelist had invented Doc Pomus, his story would still be hard to believe. Born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn, he contracted polio as a child, changed his name and tried to become an R&B singer (on crutches), then focused on songwriting, penning hits in the 50s and 60s for the Drifters, Ray Charles and Elvis (to name a few), including “This Magic Moment,” “Viva Las Vegas,” and “A Teenager in Love.” Falling into debt and obscurity as rock acts began writing their own material, he turned to gambling, running high-stakes poker games out of his Upper West Side apartment. In the 70s he got back to work, collaborating with Dr. John, Willy DeVille and others, and mentoring a new generation of songwriters, although largely confined to his apartment or wheelchair.

With a story this dramatic, and with a figure so influential in popular music, it’s incredible (and shameful) that no one’s made a movie about Doc Pomus before. (He died of lung cancer in 1991. He was 65.) Directors Miller and Hechter, along with Pomus’s daughter Sharyn Felder, have done an admirable job covering all aspects of his life, including his seeming restlessness and self-destructive tendencies. The interviews with the usual rock critics, biographers, and fellow musicians (B.B. King, Dion, Leiber and Stoller) are supplemented by lots of personal touches, including home movies, and Lou Reed reading from Pomus’s private journals. He was clearly a big man (who finally gave up smoking but not indulging his voracious appetite) with a big heart, helping out not just other writers, but assorted downtrodden denizens of New York. Anyone interested in the last 60 years of popular music should see this documentary; at the very least, you won’t ever hear “Save the Last Dance for Me” in the same way again.

Opens October 4