Our review of Fiddler On The Roof (Blu-Ray), published April 18th, 2011, is also available.
"It's only a dance, Mama!"—Hodel (Michele Marsh) at the wedding
I have always been dubious of Hollywood musicals. Most of them are manipulative melodramas that surrender genuine thematic and emotional resonance in favor of wild stage business and histrionic songs with little more than a cute hook or two. Few musicals hold up on repeat viewings: The Sound Of Music, Singing in the Rain, most Stephen Sondheim, parts of Les Miserables. As for most others, you might leave humming the songs, but you rarely remember what happened in between them. Three years ago, MGM released Fiddler on the Roof in a fine edition with an anamorphic transfer and 5.1 remix. Now they are releasing it again. Is it worth checking out this new version? Is this musical more than the sum of its songs?
Facts of the Case
In the village of Anatevka, life goes on. Tradition surrounds the lives of the local Jews: rituals for eating, rituals for prayer, rituals for relationships. These traditions have always been a comfort for Tevye (Chaim Topol), the local dairyman. With five daughters, a strong-willed wife, and little money, Tevye has only tradition to anchor his life. In his friendly chats with God, Tevye muses about the life he might have, if things were different.
But, as they say, we should be careful what we wish for. Soon, things will be quite different. Traditions will be broken, the outside world will intrude on Tevye, and the people of Anatevka will have to learn how to weather changes both joyous and tragic.
Fiddler on the Roof is a far different sort of musical than, say, the empty-headed spectacles of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, it has the requisite memorable songs—standards like "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Sunrise Sunset" (is there a wedding, Jew or Gentile, that doesn't play this?)—and a brisk pace, even at three hours in length. But more than mere spectacle, Fiddler is a genuine epic: it situates its well-developed, psychologically complex characters within the context of a complete world, with a sense of culture and politics, celebration and crisis. Director Norman Jewison anchors the film in realistic detail, softened with the tones of a Chagall painting to give it warmth and depth. He imbues (not without help from a uniformly excellent cast) the characters with empathy. We feel the life of a shtetl, the struggles of Russian Jews in the years preceding the Revolution—an even more impressive achievement considering that director Jewison is not actually Jewish.
But it is the thematic complexity of Fiddler that makes the musical most effective. As each of Tevye's elder daughters leaves him, the story explores the expansive social landscape in which the characters are situated. Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) thwarts her father's expectations of social class, choosing the poor but earnest tailor Motel (Leonard Fry) over the wealthier butcher Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann). Sensing the collapse of social hierarchy, Hodel (Michele Marsh) leaves with her leftist boyfriend Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser, credited without the "Paul"), in spite of her conservative father's resistance.
The boundaries around Tevye's life slowly crack. Even at Motel and Tzeitel's wedding, the taboo against women dancing with men is broken (see the quote above), later leading Tevye to actually talk to his wife Golde (Norma Chase) about their own relationship. Industrialization (Motel's new sewing machine), miscegenation (daughter Chava and her goyishe Russian boyfriend), and ultimately the precarious political situation of the entire Jewish community (the continuing pogroms that plague them—and the hint that their final exodus is only a precursor of the Holocaust to come a generation later)—all these lend a sophistication and maturity to the text that makes Fiddler on the Roof more genuinely "operatic" and epic than Webber's melodramas.
The sprawling tale is pulled together by a single, forceful personality: Tevye. Few actors could have handled such a difficult part, requiring a sense of tragic humor and an imposing personal presence. Norman Jewison tapped Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who played the part on the London stage. Topol (billed only by his last name, as if to suggest that he and Tevye are the same) gives Tevye the personality of a brooding volcano, but never overwhelms the part. In his darkest moments, Tevye is a gentle man, always struggling to understand a world in which he feels his best friend, God, is hiding a secret. When his most joyous moment, his daughter's wedding, is disrupted by an authorized attack by the government, he looks at the sky, struggling to hold back his anger and frustration, and only silently mouths, "Why?" For all their struggles, the Jews of Anatevka, like the Biblical Job, find themselves required to go on with few answers, and, as their comforting traditions unravel, only their trust in God and one another.
Perhaps I am just partial to this movie, because I grew up watching it frequently. But even after so many years, and a growing discontent with the awkwardness of the musical-theater genre, I find that Fiddler holds up even better now than it did in my childhood. Its themes take on added resonance in our rapidly shifting society, where we must come to terms with the breaking of old rituals and find some new way to anchor ourselves in the world. The film is not about religion, and certainly is not exclusively "Jewish" (believe me, the peculiar orthodoxy of Tevye's village was as alien to me as a Reform Jewish kid living in Miami as it is to most other people), but through the careful balancing act performed by director Jewison, the characters take on enough life for the audience to empathize and immerse themselves in this complex world.
The warmth of Oswald Morris' cinematography (which snagged an Oscar) is well-served by MGM's anamorphic transfer on this DVD. The film was shot through silk to give it the look of Marc Chagall (who was himself raised in a shtetl), and the slight softness and grain deepens the texture of the film. The print, while showing a nick or two from age, is richly colored, especially in the layers of browns and blacks that are so common in the film. Watch the billowing smoke behind the army commander's head as he tries to apologize to Tevye for having (on orders) to attack the wedding. And the crisp sound mix, an essential element of any musical, certainly delivers. Of course, the songs boom and whisper with the necessary energy, in part thanks to John Williams' skillful orchestrations. And then there is the plaintive wail of Isaac Stern's violin, stepping in for the quixotic fiddler (Tutte Lemkow), whose combination of humor and sadness captures the spirit of Tevye's world.
But the remastered print and sound were included on the previous release of this disc (as was a French dub and "souvenir booklet" which have disappeared, but are not particularly missed). So was the fascinating commentary track from Jewison and Topol, included here once again. Although recorded separately, they both animatedly chat about the making of the production, avoiding technical jargon and keeping things moving even through the three-hour running time. Topol talks about his family's roots in the Russian shtetls, his personal experiences on the film, and makes observations about the Jewish culture explored in the film. Jewison is full of great stories as well, and most amusing is his constant (and seemingly unconscious) use of Yiddish turns-of-phrase that he must have picked up while making the movie thirty years ago. But if these were all part of the earlier DVD release, why does MGM double-dip on this disc?
Ah, the extras! Apart from the commentary track, the last release of Fiddler was low on extras. But this time, content is packed on. In fact, while the last disc was double-sided to squeeze on just the movie, this new release is double-sided in order to supply a wealth of extras.
First up, an hour-long documentary about Norman Jewison produced in 1971 for the National Film Board of Canada. Full-frame and a bit faded and scratched, it is certainly no studio puff piece. We see Jewison's temper on set, the Yugoslavian locations (including a dour-looking Zagreb) in the years under Tito, and Jewison's complaints about studio interference during his career. Although the feature itself is G-rated, this documentary does contain some strong language. Jewison may come across as somewhat controlling, perhaps even egotistical in the documentary, but it is clear that he came to Fiddler with the talent to back up his temper, with powerful films like In The Heat Of The Night behind him and the knowledge that the expensive and logistically difficult Fiddler would be a make-or-break movie for both his career and the studio. Unlike most director-profile documentaries, "Norman Jewison, Filmmaker" shows its subject actually directing (as opposed to just sitting around being interviewed): pacing the dialogue, blocking shots, and working his butt off. Only a brief visit to the set by Tony Curtis breaks the action. A ten-minute follow-up interview, shot for the DVD in widescreen, allows Jewison to add new observations about the making of the film. Both "Norman Jewison Looks Back" and the Canadian documentary are broken into chapters for easy viewing.
At three hours in length, you might think that there was nothing left around on the cutting room floor, but at Jewison's request, an additional song was written for the film, as a love song between Perchik and Hodel, but was never actually used. This demo track for "Any Day Now," played over stills and footage from the movie, is more political than romantic (much like Perchik's marriage proposal). It is an interesting song, but I agree with Jewison that it would have slowed the film down. The disc also includes the original full-color version of Tevye's "dream" (a funny trick he uses to con his wife), garishly overdone and stylized. In the actual film, the color is desaturated to give the scene a more dreamlike quality. The DVD presents the full scene, then segments of it in a side-by-side comparison with the final version.
Two fascinating voice-over sections are welcome additions to the disc. Jewison reads excerpts from two of Sholom Aleichem's original Tevye stories that inspired Fiddler. Spoken over production art from the film, they are just a taste of Aleichem's witty prose that lets us glimpse for a moment inside Tevye's head (as the film tries to do in Tevye's apostrophes to God). These passages are just too short: they will make you wish for a bigger bite. Jewison also reads an 11-minute essay on the historical background of the shtetl world of Fiddler. He covers language, economy, social class, and even the terrible history of anti-Semitism that impacted Jewish life in Eastern Europe prior to World War II. Historical photos run while Jewison talks, and we discover at the end that all the photographs belonged to those who did not escape as Tevye's family does: these are family pictures belonging to victims of Auschwitz.
While you let that sink in, take a look through the production design gallery, which features storyboard-to-film comparisons for six scenes and shows the importance of editing (which storyboards rarely communicate) to enhance pace and timing. A photographic production diary offers sections on Jewison directing, the Yugoslavian locations, the musical numbers, and the New York premiere of the film. A gallery of promotional materials is included, with posters, pressbooks, and an "animated" souvenir program (which zooms in and out as if you are reading it at a fancy theatrical showing). And most fascinating, actual production notes (not those "production notes" most discs offer, which are marketing-department blurbs written for the DVD), including lists for the make-up artists, call sheets for the actors, a shooting schedule, and even the original notes from the casting sessions. Did you know that Rob Reiner, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Ritter all tried out for the part of Motel? Can you picture Talia Shire (then Coppola) as Hodel? How about Scott Glenn as Perchik?
And of course, plenty of trailers are thrown in here, for original release as well as the 1979 re-release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I wish I could think of something truly negative to say about this film. Maybe MGM could have included more Sholom Aleichem stories. I wish there had been a little more about the original stage musical: perhaps a clip of Topol on the London stage so that we could compare performances, or some mention of Bock and Harnick, who wrote the original show. But as it is, MGM crams so much onto this double-sided disc that it is hard to feel that you are being ripped off—especially since they insanely price it at only $20—cheaper than the previous release!
Now I have something to kvetch about: why did MGM release this film in such a fine new edition with no fanfare or hype? So many far less deserving films, with bare-bones editions, get more attention. Somebody in their DVD production department took the time to collect all these great extras, record new material with Norman Jewison (the readings and a fresh interview), collect all this material from the archives, and pack it all on a disc with a lower price than the previous release. And nobody seems to be paying attention—this is not even labeled as a "30th Anniversary" promotion or anything. Who is asleep in your marketing department, MGM?
What's wrong with you? You say you don't like musicals, but trust me—you'll like this one. At such a bargain, you should go buy two copies and send one to your mother. And why don't you call more often? Oy, you give me such tsuris when you act like this.
Case dismissed. Let's all have a drink on it. L'chayim!
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Norman Jewison and Topol
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