Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Movie Review: Lonely Boy, a documentary about Paul Anka, directed by Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig (1962)

Paul Anka in the documentary Lonely Boy, 1962.

Paul Anka with his adoring female fans.

Paul Anka after his nose job, 1961.
Lonely Boy is a 1962 documentary about the career of teen idol Paul Anka, produced by the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig. Lonely Boy is only 26 minutes long, but it’s a fascinating glimpse of pop stardom at a very specific and brief moment in history, just after the first wave of rock and roll and before the British Invasion.

Paul Anka had become a pop star from out of nowhere, rising to fame at the age of 16 in 1957 with his first hit, the self-penned “Diana,” which hit number 2 on the Billboard chart. By 1961, when Lonely Boy was filmed, Anka had scored 7 Top Ten singles in the United States. As the documentary and Anka’s manager Irvin Feld make clear, the goal now was to turn Anka into an “all around entertainer.” The thought was that rock and roll wouldn’t last, that it was still just a passing fad, and pop stars needed to branch out and find an older audience if they were to succeed long term in the field of entertainment. Of course, that sounds silly now. But it was the thought behind booking teen idols like Bobby Darin and Anka into the Copacabana nightclub. The models for these young pop stars were Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, singers who had appealed to swooning teenagers, but had found stable careers and wide audiences. The thought was that you had to “mature” along with your audience. It’s the reason why Elvis Presley started a concerted move towards the middle of the road after he returned home from the Army in 1960. Gone was the dangerous rebel Elvis of movies like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole, replaced by the bland, safe, wholesome Elvis of G.I. Blues and Blue Hawaii. Bobby Darin and Paul Anka both released live albums recorded at the Copacabana nightclub in 1960, and Anka’s album featured standards like “You Made Me Love You,” “Swanee,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “Hello, Young Lovers.” Darin had started recording standards with his 1959 album That’s All, which featured his versions of “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” Darin’s Darin at the Copa album also included his own version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Darin’s move towards standards was more motivated by his own eclectic tastes than by pure commercialism, but it was similar to what many other teen idols of the time were doing. The idea of trying to be an “all around entertainer” was one that didn’t have much influence on the British Invasion generation of rock stars. No one could imagine Mick Jagger cutting his own “Jagger at the Copa” album. 

While the teen idols of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s are often lumped together as a talentless bunch of manufactured heartthrobs who could barely sing on key, Anka was a truly talented musician who played piano and wrote nearly all of his own hits. Anka also wrote many hits for other people, he penned “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” which was Buddy Holly’s last hit, as well as “She’s a Lady” for Tom Jones, and the English language lyrics to the French song “Comme d’habitude,” which became “My Way.” Anka also wrote the theme song for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Anka’s career closely mirrors that of Neil Sedaka, another piano-playing singer and songwriter who scored pop hits in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Both Anka and Sedaka saw their careers as hit makers wiped out by the British Invasion, but they would both mount successful comebacks in the mid-1970’s, as they each scored several more Top Ten singles. 

Lonely Boy follows Anka on several live performances, from the Copacabana to Freedomland, the amusement park in the Bronx. What’s amazing to see in Lonely Boy is the adulation that Anka inspired in his fans. While we’re used to seeing footage of female fans going nuts over Elvis Presley or the Beatles, it’s really interesting to see the same thing happen with Paul Anka, whose fame has not lasted in the same way as Elvis or the Beatles. The first time we see Paul Anka offstage in Lonely Boy, he is signing autographs and kissing the cheeks of his female fans. Anka’s fans are just beside themselves when they see him. It is like a kind of religious experience, as they are literally beyond words when they meet him. To his credit, Anka comes off as a really nice guy in the movie, as he treats all of his fans with kindness, even when they cannot form a sentence in his presence. 

The other theme in Lonely Boy, besides the abiding love that teenage girls harbored for Paul Anka in 1961, is the manufacture of Paul Anka as a pop star. Anka’s manager Irvin Feld, and Anka himself, are very candid about this. Anka says that he was a fat kid as a young teenager, and when he decided to pursue show business as a career, he lost weight and grew his hair out. Feld speaks quite openly about Anka’s nose job, an attempt to perfect Anka’s teen idol looks. 

Feld is open about his unstinting admiration for his client, as he says that he told Paul, “God gave you something that I don’t think he’s given anyone in the past 500 years.” A master of hyperbole, just a moment later Feld says, “I truthfully believe that Paul will be the biggest star, with an overall career, that this world has ever known.” Of course, now both of those quotes sound rather humorous, as no one, probably not even Paul Anka himself, would claim that either of those statements is true. But to be fair to Feld, he’s Paul Anka’s manager, so he’d better think Paul Anka is pretty amazing, right? And since viewers in 2016 know the future-that the Beatles and the other British Invasion groups will sweep Anka off the charts for the rest of the 1960’s, it’s easy to laugh at Feld’s long-range planning. Personally, I thought the funniest thing in the movie is to hear Anka’s Canadian accent suddenly appear when he says “out.”

Lonely Boy is an interesting look at a very talented young man, as we see how hard he has worked to become a star, and imagine how hard he will have to work in the future to remain one in the fickle world of pop music. You can watch Lonely Boy for free here, at the National Film Board of Canada’s website.

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