The Polka King is one of those stories that you couldn’t make up. Jan Lewan was a Polish immigrant completely sold on the American Dream. He relentlessly toured a polka music band, complete with a girl in a bear costume and ran a gift shop stuffed with Polish amber and souvenirs. He even formed a travel company that incredibly promoted a personal visit from the (Polish) Pope, and bankrolled his wife’s entry into a beauty pageant – and by all accounts rigged the outcome.
In order to fund all these extravagant ventures, Lewan used his popularity among the octogenarian set to attract investments which he promised to pay back at twelve per cent. Guileless or not, the illegal scam landed him in jail where he was brutally attacked by a cell mate. Throughout it all he was an untiring promoter of ‘positive thinking’ and the American way.
“We were trying to understand why this community of white working class people would believe something that seemed so impossible,” says co-director and writer Maya Forbes in a sly reference to the recent presidential election. “Crazy, right? They wanted to believe in this dream, people were really compelled by that desire to believe in something bigger and better and that everything’s going to come out ok, even if it’s impossible.”
Forbes teamed with husband Wallace Wolodarsky, once again demonstrating their capacity for humour and generous empathy with extreme characters, as in their previous hit Infinitely Polar Bear, about a bipolar father, based on Forbes’ own story. The Polka King is based on a documentary The Man Who Would Be Polka King by Joshua Brown and John Mikulak which attracted Jack Black to the lead role when the directors came on board.
Lewan’s character and every aspect of his story are incredibly cheesy and cartoon-like, yet the Wolodarsky and Forbes somehow manage to pull off a film which emotionally involves the viewer, and is even fun. A large part of the credit goes to Jack Black who plays the Polish musician as a big-hearted and self-deluded con man, desperate for attention and all the material trappings of success he believes America can award him.
Black nodded to the comparison made with his character of musical con man Bernie Tiede in Richard Linklater’s Bernie when he spoke to the Sundance audience at an after-screening Q&A.
“They’re very similar structures and it’s a musical guy who does a crime but really Bernie was this character who just wanted to please everyone and what drives Jan is he wants to be famous to make a big impact. I’m not looking for criminals with a heart of gold movies it just happened that two really good ones came along.
“Honestly I was just attracted to the music,” he continues. “The songs and the costumes and the accent just grabbed hold of me and I thought I know exactly what I want to do with this character; I want to be that guy, inhabit that guy, who looks like so much fun and it really was as simple as that.”
Jason Schwartzman, who takes on the role as the band’s clarinet player, spoke of the cast’s admiration of Black’s work.
“In the band we got the joy of watching Jack. We were playing to a recording track but most of what we see is Jack singing live during the takes, so he was doing this performance live and 190% every time. It was really quite inspiring.”
Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) takes on the role of Lewan’s equally starry-eyed wife Marla, but it is Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) as Marla’s mother that upstages everyone whenever she steps on screen. Where Jan Lewan is endlessly optimistic, his mother in law is the supreme negative realist. Weaver turns in a no holds barred performance that is funny and shocking. Introduced on stage as ‘Australia’s national treasure,’ Weaver almost upstaged the cast and crew again with her mischievous telling of a couple of anecdotes.
“I’ll tell you something funny,” she announced. “The real Marla was here for the first screening and she came up to me and said ‘Oh, you went easy on my mom! She was much worse in real life’.”
“One of the benefits of playing a real person is you get to ask them questions and spend time with them,” adds Black about inhabiting Jay Lowan. “He talked about his early days in Poland and all the way till nowadays. I got three hours of tape.
“I was skyping,” he adds wryly. “He didn’t know I was taping, I’m going to release it!”
“Nothing would make him happier!” Forbes joked.
Judging from the real life footage at the end of the movie, and Forbes’ remark, it seems Lowan’s irrepressible drive for attention and public success still knows no bounds.
The Polka King is now available to view on Netflix.