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Movie Review: The Man Who Would Be Polka King

By Mike Everleth ⋅ February 24, 2009

Polka singer Jan Lewan performs in front of a big crowd

The Pope, Ponzi and polka form the incongruous triumvirate that swirls around the center of The Man Who Would Be Polka King, the deliriously entertaining documentary by John Mikulak and Joshua Brown. However, the center of the film is not Jan Lewan, the eponymous “would be” king. He’s just the engine that powers the real center: A heady, complex examination of the American dream gone wrong.

Although the film is presented as a lighthearted romp — and it plays very well with that tone — there are several serious issues slyly put on display here in a tale that proves that not all swindlers have to be as famous and well-known as Bernie Madoff to be shocking and completely devastating. Nor is Madoff an aberration. The advice is clear. If a loved one comes to you and says he’s going to give his entire life savings to one individual who promises double-digit percentage returns on the investment: TALK THAT LOVED ONE OUT OF IT IMMEDIATELY! It doesn’t matter who or how well-respected that individual is, that individual is pulling a scam.

In fictional films about scam artists, the con men and their victims always have clear agendas and goals. But real life proves to be more complicated than that. Mikulak and von Brown treat their subject with a totally even hand. All sides get their say and explain their points of view. However, no matter how much anybody says, everyone’s true motives remain a mystery. What lies behind it all for both Lewan and his victims? Greed or boundless optimism?

Although the film is respectful of its “star,” Jan Lewan’s story comes across as if he’s a close cousin of the Schmenge Brothers. As described by our humble narrator, polka expert Stan Tadrowski, Lewan is a luckless lounge singer from Poland who finally sees fame and fortune when he leads a polka band in eastern Pennsylvania, ostensibly the polka capital of the U.S. Lewan is interviewed several times throughout the film and he seems like an earnest fellow, but truly he never seems like he gives a rat’s ass about polka.

But, he finds his niche and he fills it well. Whether he actually cares about the music he’s singing, one can’t deny just how genuine and likeable Lewan seems. Heck, he’s downright lovable — and that’s even knowing right from the start that his story isn’t going to end well, for himself nor for dozens of other people. Lewan gives off a natural air that he’s been put on this Earth solely to make people feel good.

The man is also a dreamer and if there’s one thing Americans love it’s a guy with a big dream. Even better: A man with a big dream, a business plan to make that dream happen and the irresistable offer of including you in that dream. Not content to just play gigs and share box office receipts with his band, Lewan starts to build a veritable polka empire out of a public access TV show, a chintzy gift shop and a travel business that included lots of vodka and a visit with childhood friend Pope John Paul II.

From the outside in, it looks ludicrous. But for his diehard fans in eastern PA, it must have appeared that Lewan was going to charm the entire world with his infectous polka energy, which is how he was able to involve many of them in a crazy “too good to be true” investment scheme.

But there’s that question: What was Lewan actually up to? Yes, he was making himself rich, but were any of his motives sincere? Did he believe his own hype that in the end he could take over the world with polka and make things right? And what to say about the victims. Look, nobody deserves the horrific financial ruin that Lewan wrought, but the amount of money some of them poured into his iffy scheme makes one wonder what they were really thinking.

Lewan’s story also takes a bunch of truly bizarre twists and turns. While some — especially one surrounding Lewan’s wife and a beauty pageant — are hilarious, others are exceptionally tragic.

The Man Who Would Be Polka King has a great story that unfortunately plugs directly into the current financial zeitgeist, but it’s also a film that can be appreciated at any time — as a cautionary tale. The American dream is usually one filled with equal parts frivolity and tragedy, although many, like Lewan’s, end up closer on the side of tragedy.

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