When the credits finished rolling, spectators at the Wisconsin Film Festival's Saturday night screening of It's Happiness: A Polka Documentary might have thought the polka dancing was over.
But during the question-and-answer session that followed, someone in the audience at the Wisconsin Historical Society had the temerity to ask the young director Craig DiBiase: "Do you polka?" In his yellow It's Happiness T-shirt, he grinned incredulously and paused several moments.
"Of course we do," he said.
"Let see it!" someone yelled.
Without missing a beat, he called to the stage Vi Bergum, seen in the film teaching polka to grade-schoolers. As the audience sang an impromptu "Beer Barrel Polka," Di Biase and Bergum danced a few steps. The crowd went wild.
It was a light-hearted moment in an evening full of them. It's Happiness is an affectionate, funny, sometimes loopy look at Wisconsin's polka scene -- or, more accurately, at what is left of it. Many of the people interviewed in the film are elderly, and even as they praise the music's vitality, they worry that it does not appeal much to young people.
At least one musician interviewed, an accordionist who performs simply as LynnMarie, is trying to reach out to young listeners with a repertoire that blends polka and pop. But she tensely notes that her act does not always sit well with polka's old guard. Still, listeners of all ages would do well to listen to the testimony in the film of country legend Willie Nelson, who says of polka, "It's a happy music."
After the film, one audience member asked Di Biase a question that also had occurred to me: Why isn't there more music? It's Happiness focuses more on personalities than music, and not always to the film's benefit -- especially because too often the filmmakers seem to be condescending to their subjects, especially the elderly ones.
DiBiase said he and his collaborators worried that too much music might make viewers' attention flag. But the people in the film, old and young, clearly love the music. Why not try to convey what makes it so irresistible?