MGM // 1971 // 181 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 18th, 2011
In late March of 2011, John Darnielle (lead singer/songwriter of The Mountain Goats) started a tweet storm with a comment about HBO playing Fiddler on the Roof that ended three hours later with some post-film trivia. In between, he dropped lovely gems like "Pretty sure that Tevye singing 'Someone should have set a match to this place years ago' gets partial blame for me becoming a songwriter." Besides being a random bit of Internet cultural effluvium, this little incident demonstrates a couple of things. One, that despite spending most of his career as a one-man-acoustic-band (and constantly repping death metal bands), Darnielle has some diverse taste. Two, that despite its forty-year-old pedigree, Fiddler on the Roof has a place in the hearts of many people despite the apparently insular subject matter. Its enduring popularity is attested to by the release of this anniversary Blu-ray.
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Fiddler on the Roof is the story of Tevye (Topol, Flash Gordon), a Jewish father in the small town of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia before the revolution. Because he is poor, Tevye clings to tradition and hopes to marry his daughters off with the help of the village matchmaker. However, despite his love of tradition, Tevye meets resistance when his daughter Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris, The Cotton Club) would rather marry a poor tailor than her more well-heeled suitor. That's just one of the many problems Tevye faces as he fights for tradition during a tumultuous time in Russia's history.
Forty years on, do I need to wax poetic about Fiddler on the Roof? It sits comfortably in the canon of Broadway musicals, and this adaptation by Norman Jewison (who, despite his name, is not Jewish). Songs like "If I Were a Rich Man" have become popular standards to rival the best in musical history. Fiddler achieves something more than most musicals, however; rather than taking the use of songs as an excuse to bring a cartoon to life, Fiddler on the Roof deals with sharp, three dimensional characters in an historically interesting and frankly epic moment. Plus, despite its age and subject matter, the film moves along at a brisk pace. I remember watching the film with a high school class and hearing the gasps as the teacher turned the tape off at the 50-minute mark (just as Lazar Wolf announces that he's taking Tzeitel as his bride). We were so engrossed that those 50 minutes had flown by.
Even if Fiddler on the Roof needs no more help from this critic, the 40th Anniversary edition surely does. There's bound to be a bit of confusion about the look of this Blu-ray, and fans deserve to know what they're getting into. First off, cinematographer Oswald Morris won an Oscar for this film, and both he and director Norman Jewison have discussed the look of the film since its release. The film uses a lot of natural light, and was filmed to intentionally look soft (as if through a stocking, the old-school technique for Hollywood glamour). While this surely preserves the look that Jewison intended, it makes the film very difficult to get onto home video. Despite these problems, this Blu-ray of Fiddler on the Roof looks amazing if you know what you're getting into. Because of the darkness, a sometimes heavy grain sets over the image, and softness occasionally creeps in. However, because these are intentional choices of the director and cinematographer, there's no reason to dock the Blu-ray for their presence. More importantly, the AVC-encoded transfer does a fine job with these elements. The grain is rendered wonderfully, with very little noise, and the softness doesn't mask a high degree of detail when it's appropriate. Take the scene between Lazer Wolf and Tveyve when they're first discussing the marriage to Tzeitel: the lines in each man's face are clearly etched despite the relatively low light. Suffice it to say that even though Fiddler doesn't look like it was made yesterday, this is the best way to watch the film on home video.
The newly-minted DTS-HD 7.1 track is as good as the transfer. The music is crystal clear, surrounds used appropriately, and dialogue well-mixed. The only problems are an overabundance of clarity that makes the dubbing a bit obvious. There are also a number of other audio options, including Spanish, French, and other tracks. Subtitles are included as well for those who want to catch all the lyrics to these great songs.
Then, there's the tremendous set of extras. Although fans might be slightly disappointed that none of the extras are new, the sheer number and quality of them is enough to alleviate those qualms. Things kick off with an audio commentary between Jewison and Topol that contains a surprisingly small amount of dead air for a three-hour film. Then, there are six different featurettes that cover everything from Norman Jewison as a director to John Williams Oscar-winning score. Then, we get a deleted scene/song ("Any Day Now"), some storyboard to screen comparisons, and a host of promotional material. The extras are extensive and really give a good idea of how the film came to be. In addition, this set includes a DVD copy of the film, one that looks to be the first disc of a previous two-disc release (so the commentary is included on it, but none of the other extras).
Generally speaking, Fiddler on the Roof is almost universally loved. Those who can't stand even the hint of a musical might not enjoy it, and a few might balk at the unmitigated view of Jewish culture, but I suspect those viewers are rare. As for the Blu-ray itself, my only complaint is that the navigation menus don't make it convenient to go straight to different musical numbers. Although I enjoy watching the movie as a whole, sometimes I'd just like to go to a particular musical number, and that's difficult with this disc.
Fiddler on the Roof has earned its classic status, and this Blu-ray only confirms that judgment. With a definite improvement over the standard def releases and all the Special Edition DVD extras, this is an easy upgrade for fans (especially given the lower price point). For those who haven't been exposed to the charms of this famous musical, this Blu-ray is the perfect way to experience the film outside of a revival house.
Review content copyright © 2011 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 181 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted Scene
* DVD Copy