One wouldn’t assume that Jerome Felder was responsible for some of the biggest R&B, blues, and rock hits of the 1950s and 60s just on a passing glance. He was an overweight, white, Jewish guy from Brooklyn that suffered from partial paralysis from contracting polio in his youth. Then again, all of those reasons listed and a less than ideal upbringing at the hands of a father who largely failed at every profession he attempted from law to veterinary medicine certainly suggested a man who would know a thing or two about being beaten down by life’s harsher moments. After all, it’s like famed musician Ben E. King says in the documentary about Felder’s life, A.K.A. Doc Pomus: You’ll never understand the blues unless you’ve lived through them yourself.
Pomus was the moniker adopted by Felder both as a blues singer (who was often dismissed by record labels because he never fit a marketable look for his given genre) and later as one of the greatest songwriters in music history. Admired by John Lennon and Bob Dylan greatly, Pomus was responsible for “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Why Must I be a Teenager in Love,” and “Lonely Avenue,” just to name a few. His success lasted only about as far as the age of the singer/songwriter in the late 60s. His marriage deteriorated along with his health, but there were still moments of greatness in Pomus’ life, mostly acting as mentor to younger artists (often female) that were keen on learning the ins and outs of songwriting.
Filmmakers Peter Miller and Will Hechter certainly talk to a wide enough range of people, giving the documentary a comprehensive tone for a man who would be hard to encapsulate into a single film. Everyone from former lovers, his kids, family, ex-wife, collaborators, executives, and musicians are talked to, and instead of always being glowing and laudatory, they are honest about Doc’s shortcomings. He was a well liked guy, but someone who they all knew had self-destructive tendencies (with insecurity and gambling being the main two). The late Lou Reed also adds an ominous air to the film, by reading from Pomus’ deeply personal and darkly worded private journals and notes. With both men now no longer with us, the film at times gives off the feeling of a grand eulogy for a man who never properly got the critical recognition he probably deserved.
The film begins to drag a bit once it passes Pomus’ heyday as a songwriter and it heads into the end of his life. The stuff about how he always loved to (possibly unknowingly) flirt with his young female protégées and his late life metamorphosis into a bit of a social butterfly that people flocked to for advice gets a bit repetitive and drawn out. But overall, it’s hard not to say that Pomus is unworthy of such a grand chronicling. He was the definition of a working writer: someone who just kept writing their entire life because they had no other means of expressing their own innermost desires. And when dealing with someone like that who was as good at what he did as Pomus was, there’s certainly no shortage of great material and stories to choose from.