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Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1


Featuring Norman Jewison, Topol, John Williams, Robert F. Boyle, Kenneth Turan, Sheldon Harnick, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small.

Narrated by Jeff Goldblum.

Written by Michael Sragow and Daniel Raim.

Directed by Daniel Raim.

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. 88 minutes. Not Rated.

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”

The film version of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof came right at the tail end of the glory days of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical. While the 1960s were littered with musicals about unexpected subjects – like gang violence (West Side Story), fleeing Nazis (The Sound of Music), a long-forgotten vaudeville actress (Funny Girl) and the cockney working class poor in London (My Fair Lady, Oliver! and Mary Poppins) – that led to a glut of product. Soon there were lesser movie musicals which were all failing spectacularly – like Paint Your Wagon, Dr. Doolittle, Camelot and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

This was the atmosphere that the film was birthed in. Hollywood was worried about the viability of this movie. What were the chances that a very specific story about Jewish life in the Russian ghettos in 1905 – based on the short stories of Sholem Aleichem – would appeal to a broad audience?

Yet, 58 years after the musical’s Broadway debut, and 51 years after the release of the film, Fiddler on the Roof is a classic tale and many (most) of its songs are beloved standards. The musical has had two Broadway revivals in the last 20 years (2004-2006 and 2015-2016) as well as an off-Broadway revival done in Yiddish. This is also the second documentary on the musical in a just few years. (Fiddler on the Roof: Miracles of Miracles [2019] revolved more around the play, while Fiddler’s Journey is about the making of the classic film version.)

But, at the time, making Fiddler into a movie was a bit of a gamble.

And how did the film keep its balance? That I can tell you in two words: “Norman Jewison.”

Jewison was a hot young director who had just helmed the acclaimed hit film In the Heat of the Night soon before the filming of Fiddler on the Roof. As Jewison explains in the documentary, he almost turned down the job when offered to him, because despite his name, “I'm a goy.” (“Goy” is a Yiddish term for non-Jews.) However, the producers knew that and didn’t care. As they explained, they didn’t want a film that would only appeal to Jews. They wanted a movie for everyone.

Jewison, who is in his 90s now, is interviewed extensively on the experience of filming Fiddler and makes for a charming guest. Also spinning fascinating tales are film musical director John Williams – who did Fiddler before his Jaws and Star Wars soundtrack and Boston Pops stardom – and lyricist Sheldon Harnick.

Actresses Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small (who played Tevye’s daughters) are all wonderfully animated in discussing their involvement in the film which would become the best-known credit for each one of their careers. Also there is some extended interview footage of Israeli lead actor Topol – however, that footage seems to date back to 2009, so I’m not sure if it was filmed specifically for this project or the movie is just reusing an older interview from some other source.

There are lots of fun anecdotes related about the filming of Fiddler on the Roof – like when Jewison tells of violinist Isaac Stern’s reaction to the idea of playing the music of the titular fiddler and Jewison’s reaction to the young actresses playing the daughters deciding to be historically accurate and stopping shaving under their arms for role. There are also some more sobering ones – like for a film about a vanished society, the filmmakers acknowledge that the village they filmed in was in Yugoslavia, a country which no longer exists.

But, mostly, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen reminds us what a relatable and truly lovely experience the film was. There is a reason that Fiddler On the Roof is so beloved – even 51 years after it played in theaters. It is oddly timely and timeless, all at the same time. And it had a score which is hard to beat. Most musicals have one or two songs that seep their way into the public consciousness. Almost every song in Fiddler is a beloved classic.

As Tevye said: “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you... I don't know.”

However, with Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, you will get as good an explanation as you can expect.

So, in honor of the filmmakers of this loving deep dive into a classic movie, let’s drink l’chaim – to life.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: April 30, 2022.

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