First Run Features // 1996 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // October 21st, 2004
"I play it just the way I would tell a story" -- Max Epstein
Part concert film and part biography, A Tickle in the Heart is an intimate look at The Epstein Brothers, a well-loved trio who play traditional Eastern European Jewish folk tunes known as klezmer music. Originally based on liturgical music and the arrhythmic recitation of the Torah, klezmer is a sad but playful music that uses violins and clarinets to express melodically the full range of human emotions. With frequent tempo changes and improvisational ornamental effects like trills and glissandi, klezmer found a kinship with big bands and jazz when it migrated to North America after World War II. It matured under the care of first-generation musicians like the Epsteins, who were mainstays at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Jewish holidays during their prime in Brooklyn in the 1950s and '60s.
Although they had officially retired to Florida, the resurgence in the popularity of klezmer music in the mid-1990s had Willie, Julie, and star clarinetist Max Epstein dusting off their instruments to record a new CD and embark on a worldwide comeback tour. German director Stefan Schwietert follows the feisty octogenarians from local shows in Florida and back to New York City and all the way across the Atlantic for concerts in Russia and Berlin. Spliced between these snippets of performance footage are casual interviews with each member of the band, as well as some of their admirers. The Epsteins talk about their own musical histories, the experience of growing up Jewish in New York, and express surprise at the durability of klezmer music after all these years.
There's no denying the sweetness and nostalgic appeal of these debonair musicians, and the music really does sing its own virtues, but the time between the interviews and concert footage is gratuitously filled with pointless landscape shots from car and train windows, scenes of the Epsteins booking local concerts on the phone and setting up their equipment. A Tickle in the Heart also assumes that the viewer already has a working knowledge of klezmer music, and doesn't have much to offer newcomers in the way of history or context; Schwietert is only interested in gathering touching anecdotes and the first-hand stories behind the music. In one interview, Julius talks about the curious resurgence of klezmer in the past few years, but no attempt is made to discuss the reasons behind the renewed popularity.
Some effort -- although not much -- has been made on this DVD release to help those whose questions about the style of music were not answered by the film. The emphasis is on "brief" in "A Brief History of Klezmer," a page of text that flatly contradicts the Epsteins' equally short definition in the film. A few more text pages offer some klezmer CD recommendations, a useful enough feature for some. Skippable are the photo gallery and some unrelated trailers. The only extra of real value is Two Weddings, a six-minute short that tells the bittersweet story of a Jewish couple who secretly married in Nazi Germany before being separated into different concentration camps. Their survival and subsequent reuniting in America is a fascinating tale, but the film suffers from Schwietert's heavy hand and a fairly specious entry point: the wedding of their grandson as a contrast.
This transfer does not stand up beside DVDs of films of a similar vintage. Although newly remastered, the film still has its fair share of speckling and source artifacts. Clarity and contrast are both below average, with poor shadow detail and distracting pixelization in the dimmest scenes. This is a clear disservice to the film's evocative black and white cinematography. The limited stereo soundtrack fairs pretty well, however, and the concert scenes are as clear as you would hope.
Regardless of any problems with the film, the Epstein Brothers were one of the last links to the post-war klezmer scene, and Schwietert is to be commended for recording the concerts for posterity, especially now that two of the brothers have passed away since the filming of A Tickle in the Heart. Overall, an interesting but inconsistent documentary that remains worth watching because of the excellent performance sequences and the heart tickling klezmer music.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Music Recommendations
* A Brief History of Klezmer
* "Two Weddings" Short Film