Sunday, June 07, 2009

BIFF ’09: The Man Who Would Be Polka King

Consider it a Behind the Music for AARP members. This unlikely music documentary follows the spectacular rise and fall of Jan Lewan, who built a polka empire with Bernard Madoff-style financing, only to see it inevitably come crashing down around him. Although it seems like a mockumentary, Joshua von Brown & John Mikulak’s The Man Who Would Be Polka King (trailer here) is evidently a real deal doc, which screened last night during the 2009 Brooklyn International Film Festival.

Music has always been Jan Lewan’s life, but it was not always set to a polka oompah beat. When he defected from Poland, Lewan first sought his fame as a romantic balladeer in the hotels of provincial Canada. Migrating to Pennsylvanian coal country in search of work, he found a Polish community that still took its polka seriously. Before long, he had a band and a growing following.

Lewan would become a Grammy-nominated star of the polka circuit, marrying a would-be beauty queen. However, when his wife won the 1998 Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant under suspicious circumstances, it signaled the beginning of the end for Lewan. The polka king had been financing his empire with high interest bonds. It was a classic ponzi scheme that began to unravel when bad publicity from the Mrs. Pennsylvania controversy scared off new potential investors/marks.

Things quickly went from bad to worse, following the disastrous pattern of many ill-fated metal bands. Lewan would contend with a spiteful former band-member stirring up discord with his investors, as well a tragic bus accident that killed two of his musicians and badly injured his son. Basically, the Lewans are what the Osbornes would be if Ozzy played polka.

Lewan’s story is so bizarre it seems like parody. It is hard to believe the corny world of polka music and beauty pageants could produce such drama. However, having recently been released from prison, where he suffered a violent physical attack, Lewan’s story is as real as it gets. Yet von Brown and Mikulak only heighten viewer incredulity with their casting of actor Greg Korin to host the film as Stan Tadrowski, a fictional authority on Northeastern Pennsylvania polka.

Expanded from a shorter film which aired on Court TV, the current festival cut of King is a thorough but lively examination of the dark side of polka. To their credit, the filmmakers are quite even-handed and clearly had access to most of the key figures of Lewan’s epic implosion. They keep things moving along at a good clip and bring the necessary ironic sensibility so obviously needed for such a strange story. At times, they are victims of the own success, documenting events which seem too odd to be true. Its next BIFF screening will be this coming Thursday (6/11) at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema.