By Elias Savada.
An affectionate tribute blending some behind-the-scenes material and mostly older (but still quite original) interviews with the film’s star Topol and others.”
Harvesting a long-running infatuation with thrice Oscar-nominated director Norman Jewison, producer-director-editor Daniel Raim, an Oscar-nominated (for the 2001short subject The Man on Lincoln’s Nose) documentarian finally got around to making a film about him. He met Jewison while making a short film in 1999 about production designer Robert F. Boyle, his professor while studying at The American Film Institute. Interviews with each of these award-winning men, and a host of others, now form a key component of Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, a love letter to the filmed version of the hit musical Fiddler on the Roof, on which Boyle and Jewison collaborated.
Raim, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, has certainly infused his worldly view on his making-of film, having seen the beloved 1971 feature, the highest-grossing film of the year, when he first saw the film as a child. I wonder what might have happened if he had instead gotten over-excited about Clockwork Orange?
No need to worry, as he has crafted an affectionate tribute blending some behind-the-scenes material and mostly older (but still quite original) interviews with the film’s star Topol and others. Footage about the underyling feature has been available on various disc versions, including a 2011 Blu-ray edition that had commentary by Topol and Jewison and offered several bonus documentaries, although I don’t think any of those found their way into Fiddler’s Journey.
After Raim proclaims early in his film chronicling “Jewison’s spiritual and creative quest to re-envision a beloved Broadway classic,” he sets out to prove his point. Talking heads are sprinkles throughout the 88-minute production: film critic Kenneth Turan, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, composer, conductor and music arranger John Williams, Israeli actor Topol, and numerous members from the film’s cast, including Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Michele Marsh (Hodel), Neva Small (Chava). These daughters of Tevye, filmed in 2021, spin lovely yarns about the circumstances under which they were selected and the chemistry they found for the camera. Their interviews glow with youthful energy despite the half-century that has passed since they shot their scenes. While the camera may focus on them, the filmmaker often cuts away to a photograph or some behind-the-scene production footage to reflect on the spoken words. It works.
For me, Zero Mostel was the quintessential Tevye. I saw him on the Broadway stage during opening week in September 1964, and it was an enervating, heartwarming, and fun evening. For Jewison, Mostel was too showy, too funny, and, seemingly too American to portray the Eastern European Jew that the director envisioned for the role. After seeing Topol perform in the London stage version in February 1968, he felt that his Tevye was a more universal — and more unifying — figure that would expand the film beyond its perceived limited audience. Theater historians know the stage producers had similar doubts, quickly dashed by its widespread appeal. It was the first original Broadway musical to surpass 3,000 performances.
To learn more about the making of the show, you should watch Max Lekowicz’s 2019 documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, currently streaming free in Amazon’s Prime Video.
Raim flavors his approach to the film with his worldview of the director, from his television roots to his pigeonholing as a light comedy director to his bolder approach (In the Heat of the Night). Anecdotes abound, including one about Robert Kennedy and several about wanting to be a Jew (he wasn’t, despite everyone assuming he was).
Jewison’s thoughts are on display throughout, as his memories offer a running commentary on how life affected his cinematic philosophy. He references a trip he took from his native Canada to the United States, coming face to face with segregation and other of society’s problems in America in the 1960s that would later show up in his films.
It’s naturally filled with bits of trivia — Danny Kaye wanted to play Tevye. FRANK SINATRA wanted to play Tevye! Marble dust as a stand-in for snow. How the wedding and dream scenes were filmed at Pinewood Studios in England.
With the documentary narrated by mensch Jeff Goldblum, Raim does a yeoman’s job in assembling all the parts and giving you something more. And a shoutout to Michael Sragow, who co-wrote and co-produced the film, penned the narration, and was the lead researcher. The two have made this half-century+ reflection on an iconic work into a breezy, informative, and enlightening piece. Abundant poignant memories are the film’s heart. It’s a lovely, overdue postscript to one of the most powerful movie musicals ever made (so said highly opinionated film critic Pauline Kael (whose Jewish parents left Pruszków, Poland for a future in America).
While you’re waiting for Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen to arrive at your local film festival or theater (check here for that), go watch (and re-watch) the 1971 film, available on most streaming outlets.
One note on Tevye’s home Anatevka, a town modeled by Sholom Aleichem, on whose stories the musical is based, after Boyarka, near the author’s birthplace. The pogroms that targeted Jews over a century ago have now morphed into a wider incursion that is just as deadly and despicable. Of course, Fiddler on the Roof was filmed in what was then Yugoslavia. As critic Turan says “another place that is no more.”
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).