Documentary Review: Remembering an Epic Musical: “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen”

You don’t have to be a big fan of “Fiddler on the Roof” to get a kick out of “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen,” the warm and lighthearted documentary remembrance of this 1971 film. But if you see this “making of” film, it might change your mind about this Broadway blockbuster and the effort it took to bring it to the big screen.

“Journey” is a celebration of not just the two icons of the cinema most famous for realizing this adaptation, the celebrated director Norman Jewison and legendary screen music composer John Williams. It highlights the cinematographic canniness of Oswald Morris, the director of photography, and the uncanny skills of production designer Robert F. Boyle in “recreating the lost world of East European Jewry.”

Director Daniel Raim (“Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story”) finds all these ways to charm and delight us, by having the three little-known actresses who played some of Tevye’s daughters — Rosalind Harris, Neva Small and Michele Marsh — remember this landmark part of their lives, still able to sing their numbers from the show on camera. For good measure, here’s Broadway lyricist Sheldon Harnick singing “Sunrise, Sunset” and joshing “What, you’re not crying?” to the film crew visiting him at home.

Blending fresh interviews with all of those mentioned, along with archival chats with the film’s Israeli star, Topol and on-the-set footage of Jewison, working with his director of photography and directing his big, village-sized cast, Raim recreates the world “Fiddler” was made in through the memories of those who made it. “Journey” gives us the thinking behind the production and the era — “West Side Story” to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with the biggest hit of them all, “The Sound of Music” — that gave birth to this iconic film.

They had to go to Yugoslavia to build a convincing end of the 19th century Russian shtetl, and let the brown earth, unpainted buildings and photographs by photo-documentarian Roman Vishniac determine the “real” look of such a place in such a time that Boyle would recreate, right down to building the first wooden Jewish synagogue — as a set — seen in Eastern Europe since the Holocaust, conjuring up “an Old World relic of quiet grandeur.”

Williams recalls walking the Lekenik (then Yugoslavia) sets, timing out steps as musical beats to make the Jerry Bock stage musical’s score fit the locations — a barn with a hayloft for “If I Were a Rich Man,” for instance.

And most fascinating to film buffs, “Fiddler’s Journey” gets a handle on its filmmaker, who made light Hollywood comedies (“Send Me No Flowers”) and Cold War farces (“The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming”), socially relevant dramas (“In the Heat of the Night,” “And Justice for All,” “The Hurricane”), “Fiddler” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Moonstruck.”

The Canadian Jewison repeats his oft-told story of “always wanting to be Jewish,” growing up in Toronto, which fired his enthusiasm for bringing history, loss and suffering to this story of “family” in a time of turmoil and change, in musical form.

I’ve been a big fan of Jewison’s forever, but “Fiddler” is one of those movies that I rarely finish when I stop by it, channel surfing. It’s stunningly-detailed in its recreation of a lost time and place and that always stops me and makes me watch for a bit. A couple of production numbers dazzle even today, and the gorgeous cinematography reminds one of the glories of celluloid. But only a couple of performances seem stand up, with Topol’s broad gestures (he wasn’t alone) still seeming scaled for the stage. There’s simply no “star power” to it.

Maybe it’s the almost mournful tone of much of “Fiddler,” the unthinkable cruelty behind pogroms and the insular nature of the culture threatened by anti-Semitism, the arcane gender attitudes and the fact that more tunes are wistful and somber like “Sunrise, Sunset” than bracing and full-blooded like “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”

But there’s a reason the film endures and the play earns revivals, big and small, far and wide. It speaks to people the world over.

And when “Fiddler’s Journey” opens (April 29), you can see the effort it took to bring a Broadway phenomenon, with its career-defining performance by Zero Mostel as Tevye, to the screen with a cast of mostly-unknowns, a Canadian “goy” behind the camera and a lot of perfectly-costumed, perfectly-housed peasant folk living what they never knew would be their last days in the only home they’d ever known.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Norman Jewison, John Williams, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Rosalind Harris, Sheldon Harnick, Kenneth Turan, narrated by Jeff Goldblum.

Credits: Directed by Daniell Raim, scripted by Michael Sragow and Daniel Raim. A Zeitgeist Film, a Kino Lorber release.

Running time: 1:28

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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