‘Polish Bar’ finds a DJ reconsidering his relationship to Jewish traditions.

Ben Berkowitz Offers Sound Advice

Adam Hartzell July 25, 2011

Polish Bar follows Reuben Horowitz (played by Boardwalk Empire's Vincent Piazza) as he tries to make a name for himself as a DJ in the Chicago club and music scene. He's anchored to his family by working at the jewelry store of his Uncle Sol (Judd Hirsch), but he's drawn away from them by his other gig, which is at a strip club—where he also acts as a drug supplier for the clientele. The film screened this past weekend at the Castro Theater during the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and three other opportunities to see it during the festival remain: It plays Berkeley Repertory Theatre July 30, in Stanford August 2 and at the Rafael Film Center August 6. I convened with director Ben Berkowitz over email to discuss such intriguing aspects of Polish Bar as the use of music and the representation of his hometown of Chicago.

SF360: The use of sound is hugely important to this film. What's particularly interesting is how it's not the music of the DJ that's highlighted, but the DJ's movements themselves. You bring to the sonic forefront the sounds of working the fader or dropping the needle on the record. The scene where Reuben gets his ‘big break,’ it's not the music that moves the (film) crowd, but the response of the crowd within the film. Perhaps it's my crappy sound system, but the music sounds Charlie Brown mwah-mwah-mwah-ish. This, along with my next question, is what I find so intriguing about this film, since it's a divergence from what you expect of this type of storyline. You are not using music to [emotionally] ‘manipulate’ us. You pay attention to the DJ’s manual dexterity and the club crowds’ part in the DJ’s performance. Can you elaborate on your approach to sound in this film?

Ben Berkowitz: Well, for me it is simple: I wanted it from the beginning to feel like you are with Reuben as he tries to find his way to being a DJ. We knew he was tough to like and we accepted that. When we chose Vincent, who is a dark guy, he broods and that was perfect for this character. I think some of the DJ sounds and sounds in the jewelry store or the bar are ways of getting into his head and feeling like you are really there not just watching it happen. I say this a lot because it is very true. The most important thing to me is a true authenticity. I needed every word, sound, image in the movie to be authentic and feel real not ‘movie’ real but like you dropped into a corner on the street in Chicago and were a fly on the wall in this world. Music was a place we could have lost that but we had so many people contribute the best stuff they could find, that I honestly feel the music is a huge asset to the film.

But I must give you credit and I have to say that after showing the movie all over the world at screenings and film festivals, you are the first person to bring up Charlie Brown ‘MWAH…’ It made me laugh. Not what I necessarily want people to leave the movie thinking about. We worked really hard on the music. All of it. Almost everything in the movie was made for the movie. Some of the actually diagetic hip hop songs were from a company called Hunnypot, which had some really great Chicago and other artists that were a perfect fit for the film. We made everything else. Our composer Ralph Darden who is also one of the DJs (Major Taylor), he makes a cameo at the beginning of the film and created Reuben’s sound. We wanted to show that Reuben had talent and skills but also [that he] was misguided, a little too ambitious, maybe even trying to bite off more than he could chew, much like his choices in other areas of his life.

But we always wanted the music to be in of itself interesting and unique as music. Not just run of the mill hip hop or club tracks but something you would take notice of and remember. I always love it after a showing of the film when there are lots of music questions and especially with younger audiences they want to know all about how [we] shot the DJ scenes. The music and picture editing of the DJ scenes was absolutely the most difficult and time-consuming part of making the film. Vincent is a great actor but couldn’t DJ his way out of a paper bag. So we tried to film it in a way that looked real but allowed us not to be tied to any one move or synched sound. I want when you listen to the sound in the movie to feel that authenticity like you are there, not perfect, not flawless but like a live performance. I want you to experience those clubs and a hole in the wall like the Polish Bar and [have it] feel like a real place, warts and all.

SF360: [This] doesn't look like the Chicago of other films I've seen. How did you go about refining how the city of Chicago would be represented in this film?

Berkowitz: I love this question because it was one of the whole points of the film. I said early on, I want to see my old neigshborhoods on film. Tell these stories where you don’t see Vince Vaughn gallivant around the Loop or Wrigleyville. It was not difficult. All I did was film in the places that were real and show the rest of you my Chicago. No big production was needed to dress it up or down. Like most cities Chicago is being gentrified at a light speed pace but luckily my locations were still pretty intact. Chicago is a truly unique city it doesn’t get the attention New York or Los Angeles or maybe even San Francisco does on film. It also has its own sound.

The DJs that worked with us, our composer Major Taylor and DJ Flipside, played stuff for me I never heard and you might not hear in another city. I am not a hip hop guy but luckily my partner Ben Redgrave is; and all our friends in the music scene in Chicago pitched in and really contributed so much. It’s the little things like calling someone in the middle of the night and asking for a beat and having them ride their bike to set and drop it off the next day. That is Chicago for me maybe not everyone’s reality but for me Chicago is the city of my grandparents, a huge history of work and family, and a city where I became of legal drinking age even though I had been going to bars for 7 years prior.

SF360: For our readers who aren't as familiar with the prayer rituals portrayed in the film, could you elaborate on the specifics of those rituals in certain Jewish traditions and how you wanted to incorporate that in the film? Part of what was poignant about that for me was how the ritual of prayer and the rituals of a DJ were placed in parallel to each other, like the two turntables are Reuben's Mishnah and Gemara [the two components of The Talmud], the club his temple.

Berkowitz: I love your last sentence. I may steal it, or as musicians say, borrow it a little. I like things that work on multiple levels. I wanted to design the dialogue and the world of Polish Bar in a way that if you knew nothing about Jewish culture or ritual you would still follow the film and Moises [Reuben's Chassidic cousin] would just be more exotic and more of an ‘other.’ But if you did know, I wanted to present him in, again, an authentic way that I had never seen on film to make it more interesting for the folks in the know. I love movies like The Chosen but there is always something a bit theatrical about how Chassidim are portrayed in film. I wanted the Jewish aspect of Polish Bar to make these seemingly exotic insular traditions seem more ordinary, because for these characters it is part of everyday life.

There is a subtext that even some very Jewish savvy audiences may not get entirely. Reuben loves being Jewish but he doesn’t want to be told how to do it and what to wear, eat or do. Now this might make him the perfect rebel but it is also the foundation of the modern reformed Jewish movement in America. I think Reuben loves his heritage and for him his turntable is not a replacement for the ritual but an extension of it. I know so many agnostic Jews, especially in the film business, but I also know a few observant ones and that is really a challenge to be an artist, a rebel and freethinker but also try to have faith and honestly express your religious feelings.

Like most things in our culture you have to be one extreme or the other. Everything is polarized. You are a tea bagger or a liberal a Zealot or an atheist. Reuben refuses to be put in that box and [so] do I. I believe in God and I think a big part of the film is Reuben navigating between the secular and non-secular and finding out what he truly believes for himself, not just what has been presented to him.