Musically, I could not care less about Paul Anka. As a documentary, I find Lonely Boy endlessly fascinating.
Lonely Boy is one of the earliest celebrity documentaries. It predates Don’t Look Now and hints to the endless celebrity reality shows cranked out by today’s cable channels. This short film is part teen idol expose, part promotional film designed to introduce the star to a larger audience, and part experiment in various observational and cinema vérité techniques.
Throughout the picture Paul Anka and his manager attempt to present Paul as both a normal young man looking for that one special girl and a highly manufactured musical commodity making bold moves to break into newer markets. The subjects of the film have a clear agenda for the piece, continue feeding Paul’s teenage female audience the image and sound that drives them wild, while showing those in the music industry that Paul can appeal to a more sophisticated, older crowd; the kind that frequent upscale night clubs. Directors Koenig & Kroitor capture all of this, but they capture something deeper.
A good percentage of the film is presented as fly-on-the-wall observation. We see Paul sing. We see him, in only his underwear, rushing to get dressed before taking the stage. We see him on the Atlantic City boardwalk signing autographs and giving girls kisses on their cheeks. Then there are isolated moments with either Anka or his manager, direct interviews telling the audience just how Anka has risen to fame, while all the while making it seems like he’s just an ordinary kid with big dreams, a solid work ethic, and some raw talent. In a word, he’s wholesome. Then, midway through the documentary the film changes from being about Paul’s rise and his adoring teenie-bopper fan-base to an artist in transformation.
Performing for the first time at the illustrious Copacabana night club Anka must not only win over an older clientele, but also the nightclub’s owner. The filmmakers capture a strange, almost foreign, ritual as young Anka presents gifts to the older club owner. A piece of jewelry to match the owner’s pinky ring and a blown up photograph of Anka for the club’s office are as much symbols of gratitude as they are offerings. This owner is a king-maker who can make or break Anka’s career. As the ritual unfolds before the camera kisses the owner on the cheek. However, the camera misses the kiss and from behind the camera we hear Koenig or Korinor ask Anka and the owner to re-do the kiss. Both subjects laugh and agree to do it again. It’s such a transformative moment for the film, showing new sides to both Anka and the club owner as they drop their pretenses and joke for the camera, as well as showing the makers’ abilities to manipulate a situation.
It would be naive to think whole film is without manipulation, either by the filmmaker or its subjects, one always knows a hand or force is guiding the process. Still, a stark contrast is struck when we see this hand at play. For, there is no technical reason why the filmmakers had to leave in the first, failed, attempt at a kiss. Its inclusion does show a change in behavior in the subjects. At the same time it is a moment of manipulation in a scene about manipulation. After the incident in the nightclub, the question of just how constructed the entire piece is becomes magnified. When the film closes with an unknown passenger in Anka’s car saying he’s unsure why he’s on the road with Anka and that he should be back home with his wife and kid, Paul Anka responds to the man by saying that the guy is not fooling anyone and that he knows exactly why he’s on the road with Paul. The unspoken answers is – because he is part of the business team. Paul is this man’s job and this is how he makes a living to support his family. At the same time, the mention of a family, a wife and child, comes right after we’ve heard Paul singing his hit “Lonely Boy” – a syrupy lament about Paul’s inability to find the right girl. The stranger’s line suddenly echoes Paul’s lyrics. Two seemingly unconnected elements get spliced together to equal the summation of Paul Anka, a manufactured lonely boy singing about his search for the woman who will complete his life, but really he’s just trying to make it big in show business.