Viewer’s Discretion: “The Man Who Would Be Polka King” and “The Sheik”

polka king


A recent Jack Black dramatization of the crimes of polka singer Jan Lewan has shined a recent spotlight on this 2009 documentary, and that’s a great thing since it’s an infinitely superior version of the story. During a time when we are trying to push uplifting tales of immigrants, Lewan’s story may not have the best timing. Regardless, directors Joshua von Brown and John Mikulak do a rollicking job of laying out not only Lewan’s polka-focused Ponzi scheme, but also the small-time excesses of an egotistical person who became a predator in one of the country’s oddest insular worlds — the polka circuit.

Lewan is like the Liberace of the polka world, but anyone who has sifted through old polka albums can assert that it’s not for lack of trying on the part of other artists. It’s a world filled with ridiculous coifs on men and tacky glitz in costuming. Lewan was particularly successful at the role, though, partly because of his single-minded obsession with being the superstar he imagined he could be. Lewan’s sights were set far beyond polka. He saw a destiny for himself that transcended the senior citizen fans he took advantage of, though his mannerism and taste manage to keep him in his place.

Von Brown and Mikulak let the story unfold through some great first-hand personal and professional footage of Lewan, alongside interviews with many of the players, including ex-band members and victims of Lewan’s swindle. One excellent interviewee is Lewan’s ex-wife, Rhonda, a real piece of work whose own story culminates in an outrageous Mrs. Pennsylvania contest controversy.

It all has the tone of a cautionary tale, but it’s hard to parse out the actual lesson. Maybe it’s don’t give tens of thousands of dollars to polka musicians. That’s a good start, anyhow.


It’s hard to tell whether this documentary portrays an American fairy tale or an American tragedy, or if its lesson is that many experiences fall somewhere in between. Presenting the life and career of wrestler Khosrow Vaziri, a.k.a. The Iron Sheik, “The Sheik” is a film as exhausting and focused on braggadocio fueled myth-building as its subject.

Vaziri found WWF superstardom in the 1980s, but I encountered him years before when wrestling was made up of smaller circuits with clunky charm. His role was that of a villainous Middle Eastern interloper that gave audiences plenty of opportunities to scream racist and hateful epitaphs in support of his all-American opponents.

It’s uncomfortable to see Vaziri, born and bred in Iran, with a career as a successful wrestler — within a wrestling world built on reality rather than the fictional cartoonish of the American circuit — attempt to live out his dream as a capable immigrant only to be sucked up by this nightmare of the American Id. But at the same time, Vaziri himself seems to absorb the cartoon, making himself impervious to the hurt it can cause through bigotry, but more susceptible to the self-destruction it can incite.

The more Khosrow Vaziri transforms into the Iron Sheik full-time, the uglier it gets. And, in his eventual return as a Twitter star at the behest of two young hipsters, I can’t decide whether the film has a happy ending.

But it is mesmerizing to watch unfold. Vaziri is an outrageous character, and the access that the filmmakers have gives vivid insight into his private life, offering a caustic example of how we view the famous versus reality. I’m going to go with American nightmare on this one. Fascinating to watch, excruciating to hold inside.

Originally published at

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