Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

WI Film Fest – It's Happiness

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”.

vi craig WI Film Fest   It's Happiness

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

Related posts:

  1. It's Happiness and Other Music Films Immanent
  2. Music Films @ Wisconsin Film Fest
  3. WI Film Fest – Music From the Inside Out
  4. Up the Downstair in Print
  5. Polka Documentary Screens in Wisconsin

11 Responses to “WI Film Fest – It's Happiness”

  1. arch stanton says:

    Fun Fact: Vi Bergum was my second grade teacher. As I recall,we did not have a polka-centric curriculum .

  2. Palmer says:

    And just look how you turned out.

  3. Anonymous says:

    For my part, I found it possible to feel sad because of the thought that the WI Polka Boosters might not outlast Pinter while laughing at how he was a hunt and peck typist. That always makes me laugh.

    Hey Arch, I think I saw you walking home yesterday (along the lake).

    The D

  4. Kenneth says:

    Who said anything about neuroscience? Music documentarians err when they make a film that doesn’t present even one song in its entirety.

  5. Palmer says:

    I fail to see how another 5 minutes of runtime to show, say, a couple songs in their entirety would convey why these people love polka more convincingly than it was.

  6. Kenneth says:

    All I’m saying is that the film, a self-described polka documentary, suffers from including only fragments of polka music. And the filmmakers wouldn’t have to add to the runtime if they cut the extraneous, slightly mean sequences of an old man being forgetful and slow. These don’t add to anyone’s understanding of happiness. IMHO.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Most non-polka people see polka as being primarily the music, which is my guess as to why people wanted more polka music in the film (I thought it was just fine as it was).

    The people in the film experience polka as a cultural thing – it’s not just the music or the dancing, it’s the memories of growing up with polka and expressing themselves (artistically, culturally, physically). The music (which is, as Palmer points out, not monolithic and open to individual interpretation) is just one part of it.

    To me the film was not about music as much as it was about people (Pinter, Vi, the Rowdy Bunch) and their wholistic experience of polka. In that context, the music existing as a part (but not the center of) that world makes perfect sense.

    One more thing – although the filmakers *could* have portrayed Pinter differently (and Vi, and the rest of the players), taking them more seriously, for example, I don’t think they were mean. Part of the story is that older people are the backbone of the “polka movement”. And Pinter is the type of wacky character who makes a documentary of this kind more enjoyable to watch.

    The D

  8. Kenneth says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by non-polka people. I go to polka shows, listen to polka radio and recordings and play accordion. Am I non-polka people?

    The fact that I’m a musician probably has something to do with why I thought polka music got short shrift in that particular polka documentary.

  9. Palmer says:

    Kenneth – speaking as a non-musician, I would say that the movie would have been better had there been a complete song or two or, if you like, more music all-around. When I look at the title, I ask, “Why is polka equated to happiness?” and I feel that that question was answered. Perhaps the title is misleading. Maybe it should have been called “It’s Happiness: Polka Fans of Wisconsin” or something much catchier.

    You and I brought different expectations to the Historical Society that night.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Kenneth – I guess I was thinking of the polka people in the film as “real” polka people. No offense, but you don’t strike me as a ‘polka person’. Neither does Palmer, and he is a (non-muscian) polka enthusiast as well.

    I am much less music-centric than either of you – to me the story with incidental music was enough (or almost enough – what I would have liked to have heard were more stories/memories of specific songs dear to people’s hearts).

    The D

  11. Anonymous says:

    John is a cousin of mine, and this film correctly portrays him. He is deeply passionate about Polka and his heritage, and will expend all of his energy to promote it. Keep it up, John, and hope to see you at camp again next fall!

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