Wall of Sound

Two films explore Jewish music at JFF

Sometimes it’s the song, not the singer. This year’s 17th annual Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival has two documentaries on how well-crafted tunes have lives of their own.

For a long time, “Hava Nagila” has been a familiar guest at every wedding and Bar Mitzvah. Like the blues and jazz tunes it traveled with, the song is a contradiction in terms: a downbeat, minor-key song of celebration. Originating in the 19th-century Ukraine, and initially with no words, the bitterness in the melody is as palpable as the joy. Old Jewish proverb: to the worm in the horseradish, the horseradish is sweet.

“Hava Nagila” took off in the 1950s, with popular singers such as Danny Kaye, Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis, Glen Campbell and Elvis Presley recording the song. By charting its course, the film Hava Nagila connects the song to a history of Jewish culture. For the JFF screening on Dec. 4, director Roberta Grossman will be on hand.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus is also about the sweeter uses of suffering. Born Jerome Felder, this Brill Building tunesmith turns out to be one of the most genial of men, revered by performers from the little (Jimmy Smith) to the big (Joe Turner). He was a teacher as well as a singer, a man drawn to the nightlife from an early age. Pomus was a gambler, a raconteur holding court in the wee hours in the lobby of a dubious Manhattan hotel. Crippled by polio at age six, by the time he was 18 he was a successful blues singer marketing his tunes.

When Elvis was caught in the sausage machine in Culver City, making four films a year, each one with 10 tunes each, Pomus came to the rescue with a number of hits, most memorably “Viva Las Vegas” and the sly and nigh incestuous “Little Sister.”

A.K.A. Doc Pomus shows how much truth there is in the standard hackneyed showbiz biography. Personal heartbreak balanced processional success: divorce, hard times and confinement to a wheelchair from the mid-1960s on.

Interviews here include a number of luminaries, as well as Pomus’ ex-wife Wilma, a remarkable person in her own right. She says something plaintive to the effect that their marriage could have been summed up by the space between “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”—both tunes were among Pomus’ gift to the world. The music in the film is of course terrific, and the documentary is laudable in its refusal to demonize Pomus’ rakish side.

Sonoma County Library