The Man Who Would Be Polka King

Jan Lewan was living the American dream. After emigrating from Poland in the mid-1970s, Lewan was a hotel worker by day, but a one-man show at night, singing and entertaining at church halls and Polish club functions. He settled down in Hazleton, PA, and started performing polka music, eventually forming his own band, the Jan Lewan Orchestra.

By the 1990s, Lewan was one of polka’s biggest stars, drawing thousands of polka fans to concerts and festivals on the East Coast and earning a Grammy nomination in 1995 for Best Polka Album. This video, from a performance at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, shows Lewan at the height of his popularity (and handkerchief-throwing powers):

And then it all unraveled. In January 2001, Lewan’s tour bus crashed on the way to Florida and two musicians — accordionist Tommy Karas and trombonist John Stabinsky — were killed. Lewan’s son Daniel was also seriously injured.

Lewan was also in hot water over dealings with his store in Hazleton where he sold Polish souvenirs. He sold unregistered promissory notes to investors in order to build his business, but the market soured and he failed to repay them. In 2004, he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for bilking investors out of millions of dollars. While in prison, he was nearly killed by an inmate who tried to slash his throat with a razor blade.

Now, a documentary called The Man Who Would Be Polka King tells the story of Jan Lewan’s rise and fall. Here’s the trailer; the film made the rounds at festivals last year, but you can watch the complete film online at Babelgum.

Lewan was released from prison last year and is currently mounting a comeback to rehabilitate his image and pay restitution to the (justifiably angry) investors whose money he lost. He’s also working on a polka-rap fusion with Vanilla Ice which sounds like it could be grounds for another criminal offense…

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Ray Charles, Johnny Cash… if they deserved their own biopics, then why not one for the accordion-playing king of song parodies, “Weird” Al Yankovic? Check out this wish-it-were-true trailer for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, with appearances by Patton Oswalt and Mary Steenburgen (!?!). I love the scene where Al’s dad finds the “Modern Accordion” and “Accordion Player” magazines with Walter Ostanek on the cover.

If you want to see the real “Weird” Al, he’s just announced summer concert dates — check his website for dates.

Macedonian Dream: A Girl and Her Accordion

The guys at Accordion Noir hipped us to Die Akkordeonspielerin (The Accordion Player), a 2006 documentary about a promising young Macedonian accordionist. 17-year-old Emilija Obradova practices diligently and longs to be a professional musician, but her family is poor and cannot afford the new accordion she needs to compete in a national competition. This 30-minute film chronicles the lengths Emilija and her family will go to help her achieve her dream. I haven’t been able to track down a full copy (with English subtitles) so, in the meantime, this short clip will have to do:

Jimmy Stewart, Accordion-Toting Cowboy

I remember reading that Jimmy Stewart got his start by playing accordion, but I had never him play until I found this clip from the 1957 Western, Night Passage. In the film, Stewart plays an ex-railroad man (and traveling accordion player) who tries to prove himself by defending a payroll train from a gang of outlaws. Unfortunately, this clip is dubbed in Spanish, but you can still hear Stewart squeezing and singing “You Can’t Get Far Without a Railroad”:

Vallenato at the Smithsonian

I spent my Memorial Day weekend in Mendocino, lounging around my in-laws’ house, reading their subscription to Smithsonian magazine when I stumbled across an article about vallenato, the popular accordion-driven folk music from Colombia. It mentioned that on June 6, a new Smithsonian film about vallenato called The Accordion Kings will premiere at the National History Museum.

The documentary focuses on the annual accordion competition held at the Festival de la Leyenda Vallenata in Valledupar. (We’ve shown clips of this festival on our site before.) Traditionally played with the accordion, caja (drum), and guacharaca (percussion stick), vallenato is a melting pot of African, European, and Colombian rhythms and sounds. Here’s a clip of five-time competition winner Hugo C Granados, who last year won the special Rey de Reyes (“King of Kings”) contest which is held only once every ten years.

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Les Blank and the Accordion

Les BlankDocumentary filmmaker Les Blank offers glimpses into the lives and music of passionate people on the periphery of American society. Over the past forty years, he’s covered a wide variety of ethnic cultures, from rural Louisiana French musicians to Mexican-Americans in border towns to polka nuts in the Midwest. And these aren’t stilted, Travel Channel-esque accounts; his films are warm and intimate, deftly capturing the context (food, faces, scenery) from which the music originates.

Given the subject matter, it’s no surprise his films are a treasure trove for accordion lovers. Several of his films focus on Cajun and Creole musicians in Louisiana, following legends like Bois Sec Ardoin (Dry Wood), Clifton Chenier (Hot Pepper), and the Savoys (Marc & Ann). His 1989 documentary, J’ai Été Au Bal / I Went to the Dance is considered the definitive film on the history of dance music in French Southwest Louisiana.

Chulas Fronteras was one of the first films to document traditional conjunto music, including rare footage of artists like Lydia Mendoza and Santiago Jimenez Sr. (The film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” enough to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.) The clip below comes from his 1984 polka documentary, In Heaven There Is No Beer (1984); it features a colorful performance of “Who Stole the Kiszka?” by Walt Solek and his band.

You can easily lose an afternoon watching clips of Blank’s films on YouTube or at UC Berkeley’s Media Resource Center and — my apologies to your boss — I highly recommend it. Or you can order the full-length films directly from Les Blank’s website.

Behind the Bellows: A Documentary

The accordion has always seemed like the perfect movie subject. Its story features a glamorous past, an unceremonious fall from grace, and now a lively renaissance. What audience wouldn’t love that story?

Thankfully, Steve Mobia agrees and is putting the finishing touches on Behind the Bellows, his documentary chronicling the accordion’s “variety, history and rise and fall in popularity.” It includes interviews and performances by Anthony Galla Rini, Stefan Hussong, Guy Klucevsek, Carmen Carrozza, and more. In the trailer below, you can see clips of Those Darn Accordions, Henry Doktorski, the Great Morgani, and Jason Webley, among others.

On Mobia’s site, the documentary is listed as “unfinished”, but I’ll post an update as soon as we hear it’s ready for public consumption.

Coming Soon: ‘The Accordion’ Movie?

Licia Maglietta in Pane e TulipaniI saw a news item (via the TDA blog) that there will soon be a remake of the Italian film, Pane e tulipani (“Bread and Tulips”). Anna and I picked up the original film at our local library a few months ago and it’s a sweet, quirky comedy. It centers on an underappreciated mother who’s stranded by her family while on vacation, so she goes to Venice. There, she finds a job with a florist, cultivates a friendship with a depressed waiter, and takes up the accordion.

The upcoming American version — titled The Accordion — switches the setting from Venice to post-Katrina New Orleans. (Maybe the accordion will be a Cajun-style button box?) The director is Norman Jewison (Moonstruck and Agnes of God) and Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives) will star.

Knowing Hollywood, though, they’ll probably ruin everything I enjoyed about the original film. On the bright side, the advertising campaign should at least help teach people the proper spelling of “accordion.” (“Accordian,” be gone!)

Frank Marocco, Hollywood Accordionist

Frank MaroccoAnna and I recently saw the new Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille (two thumbs up!) and we came away big fans of Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack, particularly for its liberal use of the accordion. (As you might expect from a film set in Paris.) But who was squeezing the bellows as Remy and his buddies took over the kitchen at Gusteau’s? Sure enough, it was the hardest-working accordionist in Hollywood, Frank Marocco.

Frank Marocco grew up just outside of Chicago (Waukegan) and started playing the accordion when he was only seven years old. By the 1950s, he had formed his own trio and played the hotel and club circuit around Las Vegas and Palm Springs before moving to Los Angeles. There, he played with the Les Brown Band, joined Bob Hope on countless tours overseas, and began his career as a highly sought-after session musician. His hundreds of credits range from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Odds are, if you hear an accordion in a movie, TV show, or commercial — it’s Frank Marocco.

One of Marocco’s hallmarks has always been his versatility. Jazz, classical, latin… regardless of the genre, he always plays flawlessly and passionately. Here’s a video clip of Marocco performing his own arrangement of Astor Piazzola’s classic tango, “Oblivion”:

The Shmenge Brothers’ Last Polka

John Candy and Eugene Levy as the Shmenge BrothersLet’s face it — certain aspects of polka culture are ripe for parody. And when it comes to polka parodies, nobody did it better than SCTV‘s Shmenge Brothers.

Hailing from the mythical country of Leutonia (“on the dark side of the Balkans”), Stan and Yosh Shmenge (portrayed by Eugene Levy and John Candy) came to America and conquered the polka charts before their abrupt retirement in 1984. Along with their band, the Happy Wanderers, they appeared frequently on SCTV playing everything from covers of new-wave hits to original tunes like “There’s Rhythm In My Lederhosen.”

Shmenge-mania reached its height with The Last Polka, a 1985 HBO “mockumentary” about the duo’s final concert. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically the polka version of Spinal Tap. Unfortunately, it isn’t available on DVD, but you can now watch the whole thing on YouTube (albeit divided into seven parts). Watch the first eight minutes and sing along to the Shmenge Brothers classic, “Cabbage Rolls and Coffee”:

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