The Victorian essayist and critic Walter Pater famously said that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” If he meant that your average poet, painter, novelist or filmmaker aims for the kind of pure aesthetic experience that music ostensibly gives, unfettered by the communicative power of language, he was probably wrong. If he meant, on the other hand, that all artists would like to reach an audience with the immediacy of a tune you can dance to, that’s another story. Either way, a significant number of the entries in this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival, which opens on Jan. 9, pivot on music. They range from the real-life R&B and pop genius of Doc Pomus to a fictional band of handpicked musicians reliving past greatness in Benny Torati’s delightful “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring.”
If he had done what he wanted, Jerome Felder would have become a professional athlete, but when the 6-year-old was struck down by polio, that career path was closed off. Not long after, he heard the mammoth voice of Big Joe Turner shaking his radio, and a new love was born. Felder became fascinated by blues and R&B music and, when he was 18 he managed to talk himself onto a stage where trumpeter Frankie Newton was leading the band, and suddenly, the short, pudgy Jewish kid on crutches was shouting the blues like a pro. Another door had opened and the result was the rebirth of that kid as Doc Pomus (so that his mother wouldn’t see his name on the marquees when he played clubs).
“AKA Doc Pomus,” directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter and produced by Pomus’ daughter Sharyn Felder, is a delightful recounting of the yo-yo trajectory of his career, from his initial success writing for the likes of Turner and Ray Charles to his lengthy stint at the Brill Building with co-author Mort Shuman, writing for Elvis, the Drifters, Dion and the Belmonts and countless others. It also recounts Pomus’ depression after Shuman moved to France, and the numerous other up- and downturns, including marriages and divorces and the gradual deterioration of his physical health. Pomus worked with nearly everybody of significance in pop music between the late ’40s and his death in 1991, and the survivors are all here, with long-time friend Lou Reed offering voiceovers from Pomus’ brutally frank journals. At 99 minutes, the film feels a bit attenuated towards the end. But overall it’s the proverbial rockin’ good time, with Pomus himself an endlessly fascinating and powerfully honest protagonist. (And the soundtrack album, if there is one, will be a killer.)
Writer-director Benny Torati’s previous feature film, “Desperado Square,” was a wry, affectionate portrait of a small group of losers seeking redemption on the fringes of the arts. It took him 11 years to make a second film, but it was well worth the wait. “The Ballad of the Weeping Spring” is a wry, affectionate portrait of a small group of musicians seeking redemption. It is also a sly homage to “The Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven,” with Josef Tawila (Uri Gavriel) assembling a group of eight master instrumentalists and singers to play one last time for his dying friend. Tawila has his own burden of ghosts, the nature of which becomes apparent fairly quickly, although the scene in which he reveals the story is quite effective. It’s a road movie with a bit of the shaggy dog to it, some incredible music and a delicious tone that veers cunningly between parody and tragedy. Gavriel, for once not playing a cop, gives the film a profound gravitas that allows everyone else to play freely for laughs. Torati is a genuine talent and it would be shameful if it takes 11 more years to produce his next film.
Before there was Bollywood, Yiddish-language films were already offering a peculiar and frequently uneasy mix of kitschy melodrama and musical numbers. The latest restoration from the National Center for Jewish Film, “Kol Nidre,” is a reminder that, for whatever it’s worth, we got there first. This 1939 epic, directed by Joseph Seiden with songs by Sholom Secunda, is simply one of the most bizarre films you will see this year. Seiden reunites the star-crossed lovers of Michal Wasnysnski’s “The Dybbuk” (1937), Lili Liliana and Leon Leibgold, as, well, star-crossed lovers. He went off to rabbinical school while she fell in love with their schoolmate Jack (Menasha Oppenheim). Jack turns out to be a louse, which is unfortunate because he has the best numbers. The comic relief, Yetta Zwerling and David Lederman, turn up for no apparent reason, doing endless routines filmed in long takes that will have you racing for the door. There is no gainsaying the importance of preserving Yiddish-language films; as historical documents their significance cannot be overstated. And the National Center does a splendid job. But “Kol Nidre” is pretty dire, despite some nice Secunda tunes.
Believe it or not, music does play a role in Dan Edelstyn’s “How to Re-Establish a Vodka Empire.” Edelstyn is a Belfast-based documentarian who discovered a set of journals kept by his late grandmother, Maroussia Zorokovich, detailing her tumultuous life as a child of well-to-do Ukrainian Jews, a dancer and writer. Her own dance career took her away from some of the worst depredations of the early Soviet period, but the family’s business, which included a vodka distillery, was lost. Edelstyn decides to attempt to resurrect the brand in order to help the dying town in which the factory is located. The result is playful and frequently funny, aided immeasurably by the work of his wife, artist Hilary Powell, who created the film’s animated sequences and plays Maroussia. Unfortunately, the film suffers from the split vision that afflicts its director, who can’t make up his mind whether to pursue his grandmother’s story, the family business legacy or his own, more pressing responsibilities to his wife and soon-to-be-born child.
Ed Koch can neither sing nor dance. However, he was the subject of an Off-Broadway musical while still mayor of New York, and he is the subject of an astute and entertaining documentary, “Koch,” by Neil Barsky. The city’s 105th mayor, Koch was, and remains, a polarizing figure in the city’s history, and Barsky makes no effort to hide the divisions that he engenders almost without effort. The mayor’s detractors get plenty of screen time, and witnesses like Rev. Calvin O. Butts III and Wayne Barrett don’t pull their punches. Barsky revisits the transit strike, the closing of Sydenham Hospital, the death of Yusuf Hawkins and, the Parking Violations Bureau scandal. He also lets Koch speak for himself, at length. (If footage of him arguing with his nephew at a family Yom Kippur break-fast is any indication, you couldn’t stop him if you tried.) The resulting portrait is intelligent and balanced, and when the subject is Ed Koch, that is no small achievement indeed.
The 22nd Annual New York Jewish Film Festival, co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, opens on Wednesday, Jan. 9 and runs through Jan. 24. Screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater (165 W. 65th St.). For information, call (212) 875-5601, or go to either www.filmlinc.com or www.thejewishmuseum.org.