There’s an especially poignant moment in the film “A.K.A. Doc Pomus” tied to the songwriter’s wedding day. Pomus, who suffered from polio and couldn’t walk without crutches, wasn’t able to dance with his bride, Wilma, at their reception. Instead, he encouraged her to dance with others as he watched. Later that night, Wilma told her new husband that she’d enjoyed dancing but was saving hugs and kisses for him because they couldn’t dance together. And Pomus replied, “You saved the best for last for me.”
That became the inspiration for one of the most magical songs ever written: “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Even if you haven’t heard of Doc Pomus, born Jerome Felder in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants, you’ve heard of the songs he wrote, primarily with Mort Shuman: “This Magic Moment,” “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?,” “Little Sister,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “A Mess of Blues,” “Young Blood,” “Lonely Avenue,” “Sweets for My Sweet” and on and on and on.
“A.K.A. Doc Pomus,” directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter and featured in this year’s Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, running through February 20 at various venues, is a beautifully made documentary that wisely doesn’t intrude on the story it’s telling. Pomus, who died in 1991, was a larger-than-life character, and a “character” in the truest sense of the word. He was one of those people who seem to be the instant best friend of everyone they meet.
Jerome Felder was born in 1925, and his dreams of being a star athlete ended when he developed polio at the age of six. After that, R&B and blues music became his passion, and he got his start as a blues singer. He performed under the name “Doc Pomus” to hide from his mother that he was performing in nightclubs.
His first success as a songwriter was a jingle for a pants store, and he was soon writing songs for the roster of black performers on Atlantic Records. His breakout song was Ray Charles’ recording of “Lonely Avenue.”
But it was as a songwriter partnered with Shuman in New York City’s famous Brill Building — the center of pop music publishing before the age of the singer-songwriter made it irrelevant — where Pomus grew his legend.
The film works because it captures Pomus’ humanity and spirit. But what makes it so special are those songs, and how eloquently it delves into the stories behind them. Consider the list of interviewees: songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand by Me” and “On Broadway”), Bruce Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick and Rolling Stone writer Gerri Hirshey. Then there are the musicians: Ben E. King, Dion, Dr. John, B.B. King, Gerry Goffin, Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne. Entries from Pomus’ diaries are read off camera by none other than Lou Reed.
It’s well worth noting that the film is expertly edited. Every major song is introduced with a close-up of the record label that shows the artist and songwriting credits, accompanied by voice-overs that always seem pitch perfect. The film also makes wonderful use of archival footage and photographs. And you definitely don’t want to miss the closing credits.
At one point, Gerry Goffin, who wrote dozens of hits with then-wife Carole King, recalls how he kept asking Pomus to teach him how to write a soulful song. Pomus’ secret was that he wrote from his heart. Wilma Felder notes that her relationship with Pomus started with “Save the Last Dance for Me” and ended with “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” which became a major hit for Andy Williams.
Watching “A.K.A. Doc Pomus” is like straying into a room full of people, many of them famous, and discovering that you’ve stumbled upon a wake. Every person was touched in very deep ways by the person being celebrated, and every one of them has amazing story after amazing story to recall.
It’s a remarkable film about an even more remarkable man.
“A.K.A. Doc Pomus.” Directed by Peter Miller and Will Hechter. 99 minutes. Showings: February 2, 8 p.m., at GTC Merchants Walk; February 3, 1:30 p.m., at UA Tara; February 8, 2:30 p.m., at Regal Atlantic Station; February 19, 6:45 p.m., at Lefont Sandy Springs.