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Posts Tagged ‘Fiddler on the Roof’

One thing I have noticed in recent years is that early to mid December has quietly become a very good time to find a decent documentary at the local cinema, often enjoying a wider release than you might expect. When you think about it, the reason for this is obvious: hardly anybody wants their movie to only be on release for a single week (this does happen, but only when a movie tanks fairly spectacularly), but at the same time everyone in the industry is fully cognisant of the fact that come the end of the month, the Mouse House will have exerted its usual leverage and the latest stellar conflict movie will be playing seventeen times a day, filling up nearly every screen in town. So nobody wants to release their movies the week before such a major release, opening up a gap in the schedule which documentary makers happily fill.

Of course, it isn’t always a terribly big gap, which is why Max Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is only showing once a day, usually at lunchtimes, in Oxford’s leading purveyor of snack foods and occasional screener of the odd film. Normally I am slightly relieved to find myself the sole punter at the showing of a movie – it means the standard of behaviour in the auditorium has a better chance of being acceptable, if nothing else – but on this occasion I was just a little saddened to find myself the only person present, if only because it indicated that not enough people near where I live love Fiddler on the Roof.

I mean, it seems very straightforward to me – if you have a functional soul and set of emotions, and you don’t love Fiddler on the Roof, then it basically means you must not be familiar with it yet. It’s that sort of show. As the title might suggest, the makers of Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles are on more or less the same page as me (the fact that one of the contributors to the film has previously produced a book called Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof further suggests that people’s minds tend to run along the same sorts of lines when it comes to thinking up names for these things). They are here to first and foremost celebrate the show, not critique it.

I wrote about the 1971 movie version of Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago. The show is one of the great musicals, massively and enduringly popular – one of the many fascinating factoids the documentary serves up is that, since it originally opened in 1964, there has been at least one performance of the show somewhere in the world every single day.  It concerns the various travails of Tevye, a Jewish milkman blessed with more daughters than he really knows what to do with, living in a shtetl in Russia at some point near the start of the 20th century. There’s a bit more to it than just being a musical about anti-Semitic prejudice, but this is still a fundamental element of this beautiful, bittersweet show.

The documentary, naturally, assumes the audience will already be familiar with this, and focuses on the story behind the story. It initially looks like there’s been some kind of miscommunication, as the film opens with a series of aerial shots of Manhattan, which inevitably put one in mind of how the movie of West Side Story begins. Before things get too confusing, the camera closes in on the roof of one apartment building, upon which sits – you guessed it – a man with a violin. Soon enough he is picking out the opening phrases of the show’s score. Whether you think opening a film about Fiddler on the Roof with a sequence with an actual fiddler on an actual roof is witty or cheesy is probably a question of personal taste, but it’s a reasonable opening for a film which ends up digressing down some unexpected byways over the course of its 97 minutes.

One of the things that does become apparent is that Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story have a good deal in common – obviously, both are products of the New York musical theatre culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and both were originally directed by Jerome Robbins. Any documentary about his work basically says the same thing about Robbins: he was a difficult, conflicted man, and yes, he was brilliant, but yes, he could also be horrible to everyone around him. This film doesn’t really have much time to dig deeper than that, mainly because it has so many other things it wants to cover.

To be honest, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles has so much on its to-do list it ends up feeling a bit rushed and disjointed. There’s the story of how the original production reached the stage, then a little bit on the making of the movie, and it touches on a few other distinguished revivals and productions too. Actors reflect on what the show means to them. There is some insight into the life of Sholem Aleichem, writer of the original stories, and the historical setting of the piece. The film’s credentials as a piece of emancipatory feminist theatre are discussed. And so on, and so on.

It doesn’t feel like there’s any real structure, just a grab-bag of material – if they had to raid the show’s lyrics for a title, ‘a little bit of this, a little bit of that’ would have been equally appropriate – but the film stays very watchable simply because the interviewees are engaging, the stories they tell are enlightening and funny, and the film-makers have found some fascinating clips to include: in addition to bits of performances from various productions (from Broadway, the Chichester Festival Theatre, Tokyo – in Japanese – and a university show in Thailand, amongst others), they find the Temptations doing a very funky cover of ‘If I Were A Rich Man’, a hardcore punk version of the same song by the band Yidcore, Topol and Danny Kaye singing together in Hebrew on US TV in the 1960s, and home video of Lin-Manuel Miranda leading a production number from the show at his own wedding reception. (This has done more to make me understand why he has become such a big star than any of his other movies or performances, but it does leave one with the impression that Lin-Manuel Miranda is one of those people who believes they are always on stage, even when they are not actually on stage.)

You do get a very strong sense of just how universal the appeal of this show is, along with its capacity to grab and move an audience. (Personally I think that, in terms of the movies at least, West Side Story has a tiny edge when it comes to the brilliance of the songs and staging, but Fiddler on the Roof is the one that will really break your heart.) What’s also notable is that it’s impossible to change the setting and context of the story in more than the most superficial of ways – it may look very weird to see a Japanese actor in a fake beard and a prayer shawl biddy-biddy-bumming away on stage, but this most widely-loved of shows is also intensely specific. The film does not address this apparent contradiction, but this is probably quite a wise thing to do – the paradox of how the personal becomes the universal is one of the mysteries of great art, and isn’t something you can quickly or easily explore.

Any second-order film of this kind is basically setting itself a challenge: a documentary about Fiddler on the Roof is never going to be as satisfying to watch as Fiddler on the Roof itself, so if you’re interested in Fiddler on the Roof, why not just go direct to the source? You should certainly watch Fiddler on the Roof before you see this movie. Then again, you should watch Fiddler on the Roof even if you have no plans to see this movie. (I think a theme develops.) The documentary is very engaging, though, and warm, and offers enough information and insight to be more than worthwhile viewing. I did come out of it wanting to watch the movie again, though. And the full Japanese stage show. And the Chichester production. And if Lin-Manuel Miranda ever gets married again, I would quite like an invitation to the reception. One of the things the show suggests is that a man can always dream (daidle deedle daidle daidle dum).

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We seem to be going through one of those moments when the musical is having, if not quite a renaissance, then certainly a moment in the sun – a rather fine TV documentary series on the form finished just the other night, several of my friends are displaying almost unseemly levels of excitement having landed tickets to the stage show Hamilton (please God let it not be about Neil and Christine), and, of course, La La Land looks likely to achieve stunning success come this year’s Oscars.

I never used to think of myself as a musicals kind of person, and indeed I was rather underwhelmed when I saw Phantom of the Opera on stage in London back in 2003. But since seeing West Side Story on the big screen a couple of years ago, I’ve come to realise that musicals can do things that no other type of film are capable of, and that some of the great movies are ones with songs in them. So I thought it would be a nice idea to look at a few of them over the next few weeks.

First up, then, is Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof, from 1971 – perhaps one of the last truly great musical movies. We are discussing one of those genres that normally does very well at the Academy Awards, but that year proceedings were dominated by The French Connection: perhaps in 1972 people were in the mood for gritty realism in the same way audiences currently seem to be longing for hopeful escapism.

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Based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem, proceedings concern the situation of Tevye, a garrulous milkman living in the Russian Pale in the early years of the 20th century. Tevye is, of course, played by Topol, who gives a towering performance of such warmth and vitality that it practically fills up the screen. Tevye is a devout Jew, and devoted to the traditions of his faith and community, despite all the trouble they cause him. As a poor man, he has the problem of trying to find husbands for his five daughters, which he finds quite difficult enough. But outside his village, the world is changing, and anti-semitic pogroms against the Jewish population are becoming a fact of life…

This is the kind of film that would probably make those people who write books on How to Sell Your Screenplay shriek and fall over in alarm, for it really doesn’t adhere to the normal kind of dramatic structure. Instead, the first half of what is really quite a long film is largely devoted to depicting the long-established world in which Tevye lives and the simple pleasure he derives from both his religion and the associated traditions – even when idly fantasising about being wealthy (in, of course, ‘If I were a Rich Man’), Tevye admits that the greatest benefit would be the opportunity to spend more time praying and studying holy texts. And then, in the second half, his world falls apart, on practically every level. Fiddler on the Roof is not afraid to be manipulative on this front, and while the film does end on a hopeful note, it’s just that – only a note.

That the film manages to feel so thoroughly tragic is, in itself, something of an achievement, I suppose, for in some ways Tevye’s world should feel alien rather than comforting. The question of how to get five young women married off was also the basis of last year’s Mustang, where the same kind of community traditions were uncompromisingly depicted as oppressive and virtually abusive. Fiddler on the Roof manages to dodge this problem, firstly because no-one actually ends up being forced to get married against their will, and secondly because Topol makes Tevye into such a lovable character you can’t help but feel for the guy.

And feel for the guy you do, thanks to a selection of extraordinarily passionate and beautiful songs, many of them influenced by traditional Jewish klezmer music. As is often the case, most of the really great songs are in the first half of the film, where there’s the big scene-setting song, character songs, comic songs, a love song, and to top it all off the irresistibly beautiful ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ (surely guaranteed to have virtually any parent with grown-up children welling up, I would wager).

The second half is a little less blessed, but by this point you care so much about the characters that the songs almost seem secondary to the story (when the film was re-released in 1979, two of the second-half songs were cut out) – and here again, Topol’s sheer charisma is vital, as it keeps you on his side through moments where he could come across as too reactionary and unsympathetic. As it is, his rejection of his middle daughter for marrying a Gentile does not seem solely an act of cruelty.

It’s such a big performance in the main role that everyone else struggles to make much impression, although there’s always Norma Crane as his wife. The film’s European production base means there are some unexpected faces amongst the secondary characters and in the lower reaches of the cast list – Paul Michael Glaser appears as the revolutionary Perchik, while Ruth Madoc is unrecognisable as a comic spectre and a young Roger Lloyd Pack turns up as a Russian Orthodox priest. Lovers of pub quizzes might want to remember that this is the movie which Dave Starsky, Gladys Pugh, and Trigger the street-sweeper all appear, though sadly never in the same scene.

As you might expect from a film directed by Jewison and based on a stage show by Jerome Robbins, the direction and choreography is immaculate, with the spring brightness of the early scenes slowly shifting to an icy bleakness by the time the story reaches its end. In the end this is another film from Jewison about the cost of prejudice, and its pointlessness; less shrewd and angry than In the Heat of the Night, this time the purpose of the movie is simply to make you care. And it’s a purpose it achieves with enormous success.

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