Fiddler on the Roof
Broadway musicals have always been a great source to base a movie that is until the vocal styling of Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood in ‘Paint Your Wagon’ almost destroyed the genre. Although it was made after the golden age of musical ‘Fiddle on the Roof’ represented one of the last of the Broadway musical adaptations to actually have a successful migration to the screen. The film was budgeted for $9 million, a reasonable amount for the early seventies and barely squeaked by recouping the investment during its initial release. It greatly increased that margin during a later release and in the eighties as a popular video tape rental. This did help the studios to realize that the paradigm for a financial success now had to take into consideration the video store not just the box office. It also has some of the most memorable songs and musical numbers in film history. It also did rather well during the 1972 award season scoring in the sound, music and acting categories as well as nominations for Best Picture and Director. As with many significant films most movie buffs have seen several incarnations of this movie but now it has been included in the ongoing incentive undertaken by MGM/UA to remaster and re-release the film in Blu-ray. This high definition version will allow even the most jaded fans feel like you are watching it for the first time. The level of detail revealed both in the 1080p video and the DTS-HDMA audio is spectacular. The textures of the clothing and the sets bring an entirely new degree of realism to the production. The trousers and jackets are suitably threadbare, rewoven and patched but still serviceable. The women have peasant dresses are contrasted with the wedding dresses; the one fancy outfit these women are ever likely to ever wear. The soundtrack affords a similar feel of being transported back in time and space to the Russian countryside. You can hear the creak of the ox cart as it rolls over the dirt road or the gravel under the well worn boots of the men at work. Together this high definition release refreshes a classic.
Unlike many migrations from stage to screen this one in generally considered following the play exceptionally closely. Although it is not the type of production where they just stick a camera in a prime orchestra seat the use of practical set affords the audience to be pulled deeper into the lives of the characters than possible in any production on the boards. The acclaim for this movie is not universal; some detractors point out short coming in comparison to the film. While some of that criticism is valid that point of view overlooks an important factor. The film may follow the play closely but it is a different interpretation of the story. In taking up the challenge director Norman Jewison took a perspective familiar to his artistic style. If you consider the films he is best known for,’ Moonstruck’, Rollerball’ and ‘In the Heat of the Night’, each movie is an example of a vastly different genre but the common factor is how Jewison expertly concentrates on the emotional development of the characters. He tends to favor regular people in situations that are rooted in reality. Here the backdrop for the story is the Russian revolution and the subsequent pogrom targeting the Russian Jews. This is a dire point in history used to tell a very human story; a hard working man wanting to provide the best he can for his family. Folded into this is the dichotomy every father faces; wanting his daughters to marry well but dreading letting his little girls go. This conundrum is universal; one faced by every woman’s father. This is what Tevye (Topol) faces only multiplied by a factor of five due to the five daughters his wife Golde (Norma Crane), has blessed him with. This family is part of a tight knit Orthodox Jewish community where tradition is paramount in importance. They define themselves religiously and culturally through the customs strictly handed down through the generations. With limited resources to cover five dowries Tevye and Golde look to the services of Yente (Molly Picon), the village matchmaker. Not only is life rough in the tiny village but the external political strife, largely directed against the Jews, grows close and more turbulent every day. The three eldest daughters manage to find husbands although not exactly what Tevye hoped for. The oldest, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), is betrothed to a much older but successful butcher, Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann) even though she is in love with a childhood friend, a tailor Kamzoil (Leonard Frey). The butcher is a pragmatically better choice since you can’t eat cloth. At one point Tevye meets Perchik (Michael Glaser), a young scholar with radical ideas. Tevye invites him to stay in his home to educate his daughters and winds up falling in love with the second daughter, Hodel (Michèle Marsh). In the second act he leaves to join the revolution only to be arrested and exiled to Siberia. Once again life twists in a way not expected by Tevye when his third daughter, Chava (Neva Small), turns against tradition by wedding a Christian Russian, Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock). This forces the father into the worse possible situation, having to disown his daughter for abandoning her faith.
The plot is much more complicated than the usual musical story. It examines a turbulent era in history when the old imperialistic regime fell before the growing communist revolution. It also provides a look at the formal persecution of the Jews at the hands of the government. This gives a much more poignant facet to the songs juxtaposing the small homogeneous community against a vastly larger world stage. Jewison is in fine form as he brings out a global conflict through the tribulations of a husband and father trying his best to provide properly for his family.
Audio Commentary by Director/Producer Norman Jewison and Actor Topol