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Fiddler on the Roof (A PopEntertainment.com Movie Review)

Fiddler on the Roof

Fiddler on the Roof


Starring Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michael March, Neva Small, (Paul) Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Patience Collier and Tutte Lemkow.

Screenplay by Joseph Stein.

Directed by Norman Jewison.

Distributed by United Artists / MGM.  181 minutes.  Rated G.

Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to make a good musical.  It’s rare that people even try anymore – and when they do it is with very inconsistent success.  For every outright smash like Chicagoor to a lesser extent the fairly good Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd, there are odd missteps like Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rouge and even High School Musical.  Then there are outright failures like Rent and Nine.  However, for all intents and purposes, for the past couple of decades – at least – good musicals have been pretty much the province of animated films, and now, arguably, Glee on television.

Once upon a time, though, the Hollywood musical was an amazingly diverse genre.  In the 50s and 60s there were brilliant musicals about gang warfare (West Side Story), thievery and kidnapping in Olde London (Oliver!), Nazi oppression in the Alps (The Sound of Music), misbehaving children (Mary Poppins), class condescension (My Fair Lady) and even animal hoarding (Dr. Doolittle). 

Fiddler on the Roof came right at the tail end of the golden age of Hollywood musicals.  Like most of those films, the storyline does not seem to immediately loan itself to breaking into song: a milkman in pre-revolutionary Russia dealing with poverty, changing social mores, headstrong daughters and religious persecution under the Tsar.  I can’t imagine that there are many other musicals that include a pogrom in its storyline.

And yet, as this new 40th Anniversary reissue reminds us, Fiddler on the Roof is a stunning entertainment – heartbreaking, surprisingly funny, occasionally scary and dazzlingly lovestruck.  Also, for a film that runs three hours, it moves nimbly and almost never lags.

Fiddler on the Roof is based on an old Sholem Aleichem story called “Tevye and His Daughters.”  The milkman Tevye (played by Topol) has an ongoing (and often hilarious) dialogue with God as he goes through his daily life with his long-time arranged-marriage wife Golde (Norma Crane) and five daughters.  Life starts changing when news is coming about the Tsar expelling Jews from nearby towns.  In the meantime, his three oldest daughters are all taking the radical stance that marriage should be based on love, not an agreement amongst parents.  And each one finds a man who strays further and further from Tevye’s traditional Jewish upbringing.

Then there is the music.  Today, if a musical gets one song to capture the imagination of the public, that is quite an accomplishment.  Fiddler on the Roof is nearly wall-to-wall classics: “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Sunrise Sunset,” “Matchmaker,” “To Life (L’Chaim),” “Miracle of Miracles,” “Tradition,” “Do You Love Me?” and the title song.  Surprisingly, some of the lesser known songs are even better – such as the surreally scary “Tevye’s Dream” and one of the most heartbreaking ballads ever, “Far From the Home I Love.”

Even forty years on, Fiddler on the Roof is a nearly perfect film and a necessary addition to any good film collection.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 5, 2011.

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