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The expression “you can’t judge a book by its cover” is something we’ve all heard time and time again, but never has it felt so tailor-made for someone than when it’s used to describe the life of Jerome Felder. After all, the subject of Will Hechter’s biopic documentary A.K.A. Doc Pomus was a rotund, bearded, wheelchair-bound white guy who lived in a small, cluttered apartment and wouldn’t necessarily strike you as the type of guy who say, was once called one of the greatest songwriters in music history by the likes of Lou Reed, but he was. And the story of how he ended up that way is what makes Hechter’s film so very intriguing.

Felder had humble beginnings as the child of Jewish immigrants who settled in a rough and tumble Brooklyn neighbourhood. A bout of polio left the once active child handicapped and dependant on crutches to get around. To cope, Felder lost himself in music ““ particularly the type of blues that was coming out of the Southern US in the “˜40s. As he grew, he became more immersed in the music, and one night at a blues club, Felder surprised the principally black audience by getting up on stage and singing just as well as that night’s headliners. What followed was a short and mildly successful singing career that spawned Felder’s alter ego: Doc Pomus, one of the first white (not to mention only Jewish and handicapped) rhythm and blues singers.

When that career fizzled, Doc quickly transitioned into writing music and soon he was one of the famed Brill Building‘s stable of songwriters who constantly churned out Top 10 hits. In fact, Doc was so revered amongst that circle of artists that even the likes of Gerry Goffin admitted to trying to copy his sound.

During Doc’s career, he had over 1000 hits, wrote songs for  Elvis Presley (ever heard of a little tune called, ‘Viva Las Vegas’?), Dion and The Belmonts, BB King, The Drifters, The Coasters and Ray Charles. He once had 13 songs on the Billboard chart at one time. Bob Dylan came to him because he had writer’s block and wanted advice. At a gala honouring John Lennon‘s career, Lennon insisted that Doc be seated next to him at the honouree’s table. It was a storied career that had its ups and its many, many downs but through it all, and through Hechter’s documentary, we see a portrait of a man who refuses to let life’s little curveballs keep him down.

The film is filled to the brim with nostalgic music and footage that evokes what it might have felt like to be a part of that electrifying part of music history. Interviews with old friends, musicians, family members and excerpts from Doc’s personal diaries help to piece together the puzzle of what inspired him to write and how his creative process worked (For instance, “˜Save the Last Dance For Me’ came from not being physically able to dance with his wife at their wedding). It’s riveting not only for those who have affection for that time period in music, but also for anyone who can relate to the thought process that goes into creating art of any kind.

While A.K.A. Doc Pomus doesn’t try to stray too far from that standard “Behind The Music“ TV special structure, it nonetheless manages to  consistently strike the right chord (pun intended!) simply because Doc was a big personality whose spirit and passion for life is an excellent example for one and all.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus is the closing night screening for the 2012 Toronto Jewish Film Festival. It screens on Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 7:30pm.   Check the festival website for more information.