It seems as if Netflix is now releasing a new high profile film every other day, and their latest is one of their most star-studded efforts yet. The Polka King (writer/director Maya Forbes) stars Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, Jacki Weaver, Vanessa Bayer, and J. B. Smoove, and tells the true story of Jan Lewan; a Polish-American polka musician who notoriously served prison time for running a ponzi scheme. But how accurate is The Polka King?
As far as Hollywood biopics go, the film is pretty accurate. The idea for the movie — and its main source of research — came from a 2009 documentary about Lewan's life called The Man Who Would Be Polka King (co-producer Rebekah Rutkoff), according to Deadline, which was directed by Joshua Brown and John Mikulak. The documentary contains a wealth of information about Lewan's story, and provided a good base on which to build the dramatized version of the story. Lewan had defected to the U.S. from Poland in the 1970s when he was in his 20s, and built up a fanbase as a polka singer in Pennsylvania and the surrounding area throughout the 1980s. As his popularity grew, he began a side business of traveling to then-Communist Poland, buying souvenirs in bulk at rock-bottom prices, and then selling them at a huge markup at his store in the U.S. He let fans invest in this business, issuing unregistered promissory notes with a guaranteed return of 12 percent to investors, according to Cosmopolitan Review's Vince Chesney. Eventually, Lewan reached the point where he couldn't come close to paying back his investors, and ended up going through bankruptcy — and then to prison — for fleecing investors in 22 states out of around $5 million.
But the documentary, as valuable as it was, wasn't the only source of information about Lewan that the film tapped into. The movie also had access to notes that Lewan himself had written about his life while he was incarcerated, as he was hoping to write a book about his experiences at the time, plus extensive footage of Lewan from throughout his career. "The movie was made not only on behalf of the documentary movie, but also they were using a lot of the footage from Lightning Video ... and that helped out a lot to describe my character," Lewan said in an interview with Lightning Video, his official videographer. "I wrote a lot being in prison with hope that I would have a book from that, and lots of that writing went into consideration as well. They studied everything."
Jack Black, who portrays Lewan, also had access to the real polka king during filming, speaking to him frequently over Skype in order to both pick his brain and to help with his portrayal of him. "We did a lot of Skyping," Black told Newsweek's Zach Schonfeld about his contact with Lewan. "I talked to him about his background [and] his life. And when I got to New York to record the soundtrack album, he was at the studio." Lewan also talked about his conversations with Black, telling Lightning Video that they would have conversations lasting a couple hours every night around 8 p.m.; though he didn't say how long this went on for.
After seeing the movie, Lewan gave a brief interview to Lightning Video, and stated that the film did a good job of portraying a dark period in his life. "Jack Black portrayed me (in a) fantastic way," he said. "And [the film shows] my mistakes which I regret and that were a result of my misdirections ... all of the darkness in my life was well represented in The Polka King movie."
The Polka King not only depicts a wild true story about what is said to be the largest polka-related financial crime in history, but it does so with a surprising amount of accuracy — and a lot of toe-tapping polka music.