April 16th, 2007
After stopping for Nepali food and some ice cream from the Chocolate Shoppe, it was off to the Historical Society on Saturday night for the first of two music-related films – It’s Happiness: A Polka Documentary. It had been almost a year since I first wrote about the film and I was fired up to finally see it. The lecture hall was jam-packed and there were several folks clad in the yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the film’s logo. No doubt some of them were featured in the film. I was reminded of seeing another documentary about Wisconsin at last year’s festival – Triviatown. That screening too had a joyous atmosphere as a group of cheeseheads were going to witness their own at play. The filmmakers gave a brief intro and the lights went down.
Our eyes were assaulted with scenes from an instructional video on how to dance the polka which brought many a laugh. Interspersed with the opening credits were shots of people laughing, drinking, and dancing as well as commentary from folks such as polka legend Jimmy Sturr. Amidst the scenes of happiness was more sober commentary about how many consider polka to be a joke and that the accordion just isn’t sexy. The struggle to get this musical embodiment of happiness into the public consciousness is one of the core elements of the film.
With the credits done, the scene shifts to Milwaukee and Art’s Concertina Bar. We see shelves lined with concertinas and a crowd enjoying some live music. The owner, Art Altenburg, gets in on the action by lining up a row of liquor bottles and playing along with a pair of drum sticks. Watching the bar’s patrons laugh and dance, the sense of communal revelry drips off the screen.
A couple familiar faces (familiar to me, anyway) make an appearance here too. UW folklore professor Jim Leary chimes in humorously and says that the polka was a Czech misinterpretation of a Polish folk dance. Rick March, the Traditional and Ethnic Arts Coordinator of the Wisconsin Arts Board, is also given some screentime. (Leary and March collaborated on the radio series “Down Home Dairyland”.) The pair were used sparingly in the film giving the focus over to non-academic fans. But don’t be fooled. I’ve met Prof. Leary and heard him speak and he’s anything but a dispassionate observer of Wisconsin folk culture – it runs in his veins.
We briefly meet Greg Durst, a record collector with the largest collection of vinyl in the state and a huge polka fan, before being whisked off to meet John Pinter and the Wisconsin Polka Boosters. At a membership meeting, Pinter notes the group’s low membership numbers and that most of the members are retired folks. The film perhaps lingers on Pinter’s absentmindedness a bit too long, such as when he pulls his minivan out of his driveway with the side door still open. But it’s his single-mindedness in promoting polka which is given centerstage. We also meet Vi Bergum, who lobbies to get polka taught in Wisconsin’s schools.
With Milwaukee’s ethnic neighborhoods changing, polka has moved out of taverns and into festivals such as Pulaski Polka Days. Here we meet younger polka enthusiasts as well as some older, rowdier party people. We’re also introduced to the invention of one woman, the Shot Ski. It’s a ski with holes drilled into it to accommodate shot glasses so that multiple people can swig at the same time. The film introduces us to many colorful characters who are all out having fun in their own quirky ways. And there’s a polka mass too.
While most of the interviewees were in common agreement about the film’s subject, there were a couple instances of difference of opinion. The first that I recall was when LynnMarie, who combines polka with pop music, commented that, while she longs to be able to play her beloved Slovenian-style polka music, younger people have no interest in it and so she has to “compromise” to reach a wider audience. Hot on the heels of these comments come those of Ms. Bergum, methinks, who says that there is absolutely no reason that “purer” polka cannot find mass acceptance. It was quite a change from the norm to hear age being hopeful & optimistic while youth was more pragmatic. The other instance was when someone (Willie Nelson?) remarked upon Jimmy Sturr as basically being the living embodiment of polka while another person then said that Sturr really isn’t polka. I personally am inclined towards the latter opinion as I find his style to be overly slick and too polished. But that’s me.
The low point that evening was during a scene when Pinter is sitting at his computer pecking away at the keyboard with two fingers. In his voice-over, he relates the massive amount of time he puts into getting the WI Polka Boosters newsletter together each week. The audience laughed heartily and that seemed inappropriate. It really irritated me that most people saw this scene as a cue to mock someone’s inability to type as opposed to seeing it as an illustration of a man’s love of and dedication to polka.
The filmmakers returned for a brief Q&A session after the screening. One question was why there wasn’t more polka featured in the film. DiBiase answered by saying that earlier cuts had more music but it was decided to focus on the people involved rather than the music/dance. Honestly, this question never occurred to me. Even if the film leaned towards character study, there was no paucity of the music. In his review for Isthmus, Kenneth Burns takes the film to task by asking “Why not try to convey what makes it so irresistible?” The filmmakers answer the question of what makes polka irresistible to its fans with the film’s title – it’s happiness. And so I have to wonder just exactly how much footage of people dancing and smiling one needs in order to understand that. Does a neuroscientist have to come on and explain how a 2/4 beat induces chemical reactions in the brain that make us happy? The question is not why do all the happy people on the screen love polka, it’s why the number of people like that is so small. The film touches on the issue mainly with comments from Prof. Leary when he describes polka as a form of ethnic identity and how it was booted from the hit parade by rock’n'roll.
Another person asked the filmmakers if they knew how to dance the polka and producer/director Craig DiBiase replied, “Of course we do.” Vi Bergum came out of the audience and ambled onto the stage with DiBiase which prompted the audience to burst into “Beer Barrel Polka”.
It’s happiness indeed.
I interviewed producer/director Craig DiBiase after the showing and you can download an mp3 of our chat here.
Offical site for It’s Happiness: A Polka Documentary