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Fiddler on the Roof: Special Edition

MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Topol and Norma Crane

Written by Joseph Stein, adapted from his stage play
(based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem)

Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Directed by Norman Jewison

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

The musical was king during the first golden age of Hollywood, and it was a natural fit. The most popular movies at that time were grand affairs, epic in their conspicuous glamour, and the musical, with its lavish production numbers, elaborately costumed chorus lines, and ring-a-ding-ding cheer neatly folded away the darker edges of life in favor of hummable innocence.

However, as the ideals of the 1950s were interrupted by the 1960s and cynically discarded for the 1970s, challenging movies like Bonnie and Clyde and M*A*S*H signaled a sharp turn away from pure escapist entertainment, leaving the musical somewhat in the lurch. After all, as film styles gravitated closer to realism, all that singing and dancing must surely, pragmatically, have been amongst the first casualties.

Over Norman Jewison's dead body.

In bringing the wildly popular stage musical Fiddler on the Roof to the screen in 1971, Jewison made a bold stylistic move that was sure to cause consternation amongst the studio heads writing his checks. He eschewed the Hollywood soundstage aesthetic common to the Gene Kelly and Rodgers and Hammerstein tuneshows of the 1950s and shot his exteriors on location in the former Yugoslavia. In winter. Replacing the vibrant colors of, say, Singin' in the Rain, are dull grays and browns, and captured with a gritty, grainy film stock aching with the bleak struggle of hard times. It's unusual, and it's perfect.

*          *          *

Based on the short stories of Sholom Aleichem, Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of dairy farmer Tevye (Topol), eking out a humble existence in a remote shtetl in the turbulent Russia of the early 20th century. With five daughters to feed and a battling wife to appease, Tevye has his modest hands full. He dreams of being a rich man but is happy being poor, finding solace in his religion and the steady guide of tradition.

Tevye's obedience to tradition finds the ultimate test as the cultural upheavals of socialist revolution coincide with his eldest three daughters coming of marrying age. For once Tevye finds he must dig deeper than his oft-espoused mangled scriptures to ensure that his family survives a truly trying set of circumstances.

In the grand tradition of musical superstars whose talent exceeds the prosaic formality of first and last names, Topol is (to use an annoying bit of hyperbole too often employed by untalented film critics) a force of nature. As the film's narrator and working-class hero, he seamlessly bridges the stylistic divide between the grandeur of the musical and its impoverished setting. His Tevye is boisterous, warm, cantankerous, and sensitive; One part Zorba, and one part a more sane predecessor to Jerry Stiller's Herman Costanza on TV's "Seinfeld." Topol's charm sells Tevye's wall-breaking monologues to the audience, and his overflowing heart sells the film's extremely moving emotional core. This is one of those performances that so defines an actor, he may as well never play another character (and rarely has). Topol to Tevye is like Karloff to Frankenstein's monster. His presence in the role is culturally permanent.

Musically, Fiddler on the Roof features more classic numbers than the last ten years of Broadway has been able to muster. The daughters' hopeful "Matchmaker, Matchmaker," Topol's showstopping solo "If I Were a Rich Man," and the deeply moving paean to change, "Sunrise, Sunset" are well-deserved standards, while some of the lesser songs, such as "To Life" and "Tevye's Dream" are decked out with spectacular Jerome Robbins production numbers that represent the pinnacle of the form. Perhaps the finest, most intimate number, however, is the unforgettable duet between Tevye and his wife Golde (Norma Crane), who, 25 years into their arranged marriage, take a breather from their difficult lives and for the first time ask themselves the question, "Do You Love Me?" It's one of the best small moments in film musical history.

Jewison — who directed the overheated and melodramatic In the Heat of the Night a few years earlier — demonstrates with Fiddler a nimble balance between the musical hyperbole the genre craves with an emotional sensitivity the context demands. After all, this is no Babes of Broadway. Russian Jews of this period experienced steady pogroms and exile, and Jewison, while not showing the gruesome reality of the situation, still captures the desperation of a persecuted people who manage to persevere, sustained only by the scant bread crumbs of hope and faith as their traditions are ripped from their hands.

*          *          *


MGM's Fiddler on the Roof: Special Edition, which replaces their previous DVD release, is presented in a strong anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that is a marked improvement. The image quality is actually very good, given Jewison's squalid visual approach, but the source print has not been well preserved, showing wear throughout, particularly at reel changes. The Dolby Digital 5.1 re-mix is the same as on the previous DVD and Laserdisc versions, and for music recorded in 1970 it sounds brilliant — although much of that is owed to John Williams' lively interpretation of Sheldon Harnick's excellent score. This is easily the best looking and sounding edition of Fiddler to arrive on home video, and it also features a wealth of special features, including a commentary track which alternates between observations from Jewison and Topol. Both approach the film with perhaps too much reverence, making their observations sedate, although not uninteresting.

Side Two of this disc hosts a slate of valuable extras, the best of which is an hour-long documentary made for Canadian television prior to Fiddler's release, Norman Jewison: Filmmaker. Here Jewison shows the candid bravado common to maverick directors of the day (a group in which he is seldom included). We see Jewison swear at his actors, lambaste his crew, dish dirt on the studio system, foretell the coming of the independent boom, and wipe tears from his eyes while shooting a moving scene. It contains everything movie lovers want to see but rarely do in behind-the-scenes features. It's Jewison's performance in this doc that casts disappointment over his comparatively sterile commentary. Also included are a series of short recollections by Jewison, the audio recording of a song, "Any Day Now," written for the film but excised before release, a comparison between the full-color and desaturated versions of the "Tevye's Dream" sequence, Jewison reading aloud three of Sholom Aleichem's short stories accompanied by storyboard illustrations, Jewison reading about the historical background of the film accompanied by photographs collected in Ann Weiss' book The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a storyboard to film comparison, and TV spots and trailers.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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