Plot: As is often the case, reality can be stranger than fiction and in the case of Jan Lewan, that is certainly true. If you found this review after you watched The Polka King and wanted to see if the wild stories about Lewan are true, rest assured, all of the stories are indeed real. This piece looks at Lewan’s life and while it focuses on his ponzi scheme and eventual downfall, it also takes us into Lewan’s past and lets us get to know him outside of his criminal enterprises. This includes archival footage of his performances and promotional tapes, as well as first hand accounts of the man and his life, from those closest to him. And of course, Lewan himself is front and center to share his memories and perspective on things.
Entertainment Value: After I watched The Polka King, I assumed some of the wilder moments were dialed up for dramatic purposes, only to discover that no, he really did bribe the pope. While Jack Black’s take on Lewan makes him much more sympathetic, the real Lewan is still hard to dislike, as he is so charismatic in an odd, inexplicable sense. I do think he was more aware of his illegal actions than he admits, but I also don’t think it was all malicious, as he seems to have a delusional level of self confidence that likely convinced him it would all work out. Those close to him seem divided on his intentions, as some think he was a pure conman, while others just describe him as naive and overly optimistic. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, so it is easy to see him painted in both lights here. Lewan is given a good amount of time here and even as prison looms, he seems upbeat and in a sign that perhaps he was aware of his misdeeds, he is unapologetic in most moments. But it is still interesting to hear his story from his viewpoint, I think.
In addition to Lewan, the piece offers interviews with his wife, band members, and of course, some of his former fans and investors. Some of his former fans offer up dark moments, such as when several of them admit they wish Lewan had been killed in prison, not just wounded. But given that he stole millions, you can understand the ill will there, at least somewhat. The interviews are balanced and provide numerous insights into Lewan as a person, a performer, and a businessman, though everyone seems to agree he was terrible in the last role. The interviews combine to offer an interesting, varied take on Lewan, so if you cobble together a little from each source, it paints what is likely an accurate portrayal. The archival footage is quite fun here, with Lewan in full salesman mode at times and of course, we’re shown the incredible private audiences with the pope. The lone complaint I would have is that this only runs just over an hour and I would loved even more content on Lewan’s life. I think Lewan is an interesting person who got involved in some wild situations, so this piece lets us get an inside glimpse into this stranger than fiction tale.