Few true stories are as crazy as the tale of Jan Lewan, the Polka King of Pennsylvania. Lewan, a Polish immigrant who settled in Hazleton PA, became a regional star as the leader of a high-energy polka band. He then became infamous for running a ponzi scheme that siphoned money from dozens of investors. That's just the beginning of Lewan's stranger than fiction story, but we don't want to give too much away.
A documentary, The Man Who Would Be Polka King, chronicled Lewan’s colorful life and outrageous fall. Jack Black saw that film and wanted to play the tragic and oddly comic figure in a movie. That brings us to The Polka King, from director Maya Forbes and co-writer Wallace Wolodarsky, now on Netflix.
With Black in the lead as the endearingly-accented and grinningly high-energy performer, The Polka King is naturally light on its feet, even when showing how Lewan’s small-town scheme to pay his band and keep his head above water ultimately led him to owe investors millions of dollars he could never pay back.
But making a comedy out of a very real tragedy isn’t an easy task. No matter how charismatic Lewan may be – and he’s exceptionally charismatic – there are still personal failures to account for, not to mention the losses of elderly investors who poured their savings into Lewan’s scheme.
The two writers focused on what Wolodarsky calls “a tragic misinterpretation of the American Dream,” a situation that “makes Lewan both lovable and sad.” Forbes describes “someone who never stopped working, and never stopped believing in the American Dream.” Whether in reality or via Black’s portrayal, Lewan is “a very charming guy, who obviously wants to be loved.” Unfortunately, as Forbes notes, “he did all sorts of bad things” to get there.
With the documentary as a jumping-off point, and Black already on board to play Lewan, Forbes and Wolodarsky set out to find the particular blend of comedy and tragedy inherent to the story while also capturing the details of the ponzi scheme that derailed Lewan's life. “We watched the documentary knowing Jack Black wanted to play this guy,” Wolodarsky recalls, “and within 30 seconds it was like “oh yeah, this is a perfect fit.”
A word about ponzi schemes. Understanding Lewan’s bafflingly stupid investment scheme is key to grasping why the guy is a fascinating failure rather than an example of white-collar evil or some minor Bernie Madoff.
Lewan realized he could parlay his local popularity into an appealing investment opportunity. He offered a few people the chance to invest in his various enterprises – primarily the polka band and a Polish gift shop – with promises of an astonishing 12% return on investment. Without a business plan Lewan wasn’t actually making money, but he was charming enough to draw continual new investors. So new money paid that 12% return on the old, quickly digging a financial hole so deep there was no chance to climb out.
Forbes explains, “He wasn’t a good businessman, he wanted to be a big man so he gave money to people and extended himself too much. I do believe there were many moments where he thought he could make it all work. “
While the filmmakers did talk to Jan Lewan before shooting The Polka King, they waited until the script was set because, Forbes notes, "we knew he would have his own story, his own version of events." And they shied away from speaking to his victims. “We knew we would be taking all kinds of liberties with the project,” Wolodarsky explains, “so we wanted to stay away from that world.”
The documentary and other reporting on all the story’s twists and turns laid out a clear path for the script. “You stick to the facts and the details,” Forbes says, “so all the big things are there. The documentary is quite rich in terms of the world and the people speaking in it.”
“In the end we’re making a movie,” Wolodarsky says, “and we want to allow ourselves the leeway to tell the story in the best way possible even if it doesn’t follow every plot twist in reality.”
The movie captures both the pain of the people victimized by Lewan and the fear of failure that drove the bandleader to double-down on his moneymaking scheme, even when he was in the hole and investigators started to sniff around.
To capture the American Dream gone bankrupt, the filmmakers found a core idea. As Forbes says, “for a lot of these con men, their number-one con is themselves. They have to believe it.” Lewan sold belief to others – one touching scene features the singer convincing his most talented band member, played by Jason Schwartzman, to stick around, with champion salesmanship – and he was always pushing himself to believe as well. In Black’s performance, you can see moments where the guy just wills himself to move forward.
That willpower was contagious, and even after it’s all been said and done Lewan still has believers. “Some people that Jan bilked still feel loyal to him and will travel with him,” says Wolodarsky. “They think of him as a guy who tried to do something in business and failed. That’s what happened, sometimes you fail. But other people thought he had larceny in his heart from the start and is not a good person. We could never land on what he was, because he’s a very slippery person.”
Still, everyone hopes the story might be true, and in the pursuit of a dream, the film finds some surprising kinship between Lewan and his victims. “They’re all going along with it,” says Forbes, “they all believe in it.”
Lewan’s wife Marla, played by Jenny Slate, says at one point “I just wanted to believe in something good” As director Forbes sees it, “It’s a tough world, and I think people are looking for something sparkling and optimistic and hopeful. Everyone wants to believe it’s possible. And he did deliver, he took people to see the pope! He gave them some big things."
“That’s what makes it all so confusing,” Wolodarsky notes with a wry laugh. “On one hand you’ve been brought to meet the Pope, and on the other all your money has been stolen.”
The Polka King is streaming now on Netflix.