I only knew two things going into The Polka King: it starred Jack Black and it was based on a true story. That was enough to intrigue me because I’m a fan of biopics and I was curious to find out what the real story of this would be. They don’t just make movies about nice Polka singers out of the goodness of their hearts. After I learned that this had made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, I was even more excited to see if Netflix would deliver another hidden gem.
The Polka King dramatizes the rise and fall of Jan Lewan (Jack Black) as he chases fame and fortune with his band The Jan Lewan Orchestra. Jan not only has his orchestra, but a gift shop, a pierogi business, a record label, a vodka, and a European tour company, just to name a few of his other business ventures. However, it’s his fans who are Jan’s most significant asset, as they are helping him to build his polka empire by handing over their hard earned money. He uses their initial investments to help pay his band members a better salary, but then the ever ambitious Jan discovers more interesting avenues to try to make money. What follows is a classic ponzi scheme scenario as Jan must find new investors to pay off the first ones, or convince the first ones to re-invest. As if life wasn’t complicated enough, he must also deal with pressures from his family, particularly his mother-in-law Barb (Jacki Weaver)and her constant meddling in his business; his wife Marla (Jenny Slate) and her need for her own identity; and then there are his band members’ frustrations with his ambitions, most notably his clarinet player Mickey Pizzazz (Jason Schwartzman), who sees the darker side of Jan’s deeds.
Jack Black practically oozes charisma in this movie. His accent is a little different from the real Jan’s but that just makes his character more endearing. One of the funniest lines that establishes how nice he’s supposed to be centers around the correct pronunciation of his name. He tells a fan, “Whatever you like, nobody say the same way.” It’s easy to see why these impressionable elderly fans would feel safe investing money with him. The high-points of Black’s performance are undoubtedly his polka playing numbers. Black, performing in a style very different from the one he’s known for (Tenacious D anybody?) adapts to those polka rhythms with ease. It looked like he was having a lot of fun embodying this nice, if not exactly naïve man. Equally great is Jenny Slate as Marla. Early on she subtly tells us so much about her character that her actions later in the film are made completely understandable. Hands down the best performance in this movie comes from Jacki Weaver. She steals every scene that she’s in. At times she really makes you hate Barb, while leaving you in no doubt that she’s actually right. Barb-ed indeed! Weaver’s best scene in the movie involves her lambasting some investors who weren’t happy with how things turned out. She snaps and tells them how dumb and greedy they were, laying all the blame for what happened back on them.
This movie shines on a technical level as well. Jan apparently liked to have a videographer with him, so we see a lot of footage through the lens of a 90s camcorder. The same idea is also carried out with television footage. If something is meant to seem from the past, for example the flashback that details how Jan and Marla met, they distort the footage so it looks like it’s faded in quality as older television footage is prone to do. I’m sure it wasn’t hard to recreate those aspect ratios or quality lapses digitally, but I thought it was a nice touch that made the movie as a whole feel more credible.
With any true-story dramatization, there is always a lingering question over what’s been altered for the sake of the narrative. There were many times I felt that moments could absolutely not have happened because they felt a bit unrealistic. Having now watched The Man Who Would Be Polka King, the documentary that inspired this movie, it’s safe to say that a few of things I thought were unrealistic actually did happen. SEC (the federal agency put in place to protect investors) really did just slap Jan on the wrist the first time he started illegally handing out promissory notes, taking his word that he wouldn’t do it anymore. There are also parts of the story that the documentary leaves open to interpretation, while the movie takes a clear position. Most notable is the Mrs. Pennsylvania ’98 Pageant scandal, which, according to the movie, involved bribery on Jan’s part. Following his eventual arrest, the movie then completely glosses over why his cellmate hates him. The narrative makes you think it’s because Jan won’t stop singing in the cell, but the real reason is far darker.
The oddest changes from reality to dramatization were the name alterations. This is possibly to protect anyone who didn’t approve of their likeness being on film, but it felt inconsistent. The most notable changes were with Marla who is actually named Rhonda in real life, and with Mickey whose real-life counterpart, Pete Chacho, played the accordion instead of the clarinet. They even make a joke at the beginning of the film addressing this, saying that Mickey can play any instrument and he announces, “Except the accordion.”
Learning the changes after the fact didn’t alter my opinion of the film, but it did make me wonder why those changes were necessary. The documentary gives the sense that Jan’s wife cares deeply about him, even defending his actions, whereas his former friend and bandmate Pete Chacho (re-named Mickey in the movie, keep up) vilifies him at every chance because of how many people Jan’s scheme hurt. Maybe these alterations in character were the reason why they went with a total name-change, because even though Mickey (Pete in real-life, I said keep up!) questions Jan’s actions in the movie, his own actions aren’t entirely innocent either.
Dramatization issues aside, this was an enjoyable story that was perfectly paced. The movie shows how someone like Jan could easily get away with such lies for all those years, and how easily one seemingly small event can make an empire unravel. You want to hate Jan for how many people he hurt, but at the same time he’s so charming that you forget he’s actually the villain of the piece.
If this movie sparked your interest in the real Jan Levan, the documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King, is worth your time as well.