‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Asks: How Does One Cling to Personal Belief in the Wake of Change?

I’m not a big fan of the Hollywood musical. I find it odd when people suddenly break out into song and dance amidst a crowd of onlookers and in bustling city streets; or in moments when a more straightforward monologue would do. Occasionally, however, a motion picture arrives that, musical or not, renders itself impossible not to savor.

Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is such a film. Dazzling cinematography, loveable performances, and yes, colorful songs lend themselves to this snappy production that is, above all things, a story of tradition told in high-octane Broadway fashion.

Oscar-nominee Topol headlines a solid cast that includes, among others, Norma Crane, and Best Supporting Actor-nominee Leonard Frey (resembling a young Steven Spielberg) – okay, none are recognizable, but they do their parts well. The story concerns a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye (Topol) and his attempts to adhere to traditional values, despite his daughters’ new age indifference. One by one each is married off, some by the hands of the plucky matchmaker (Molly Picon), others by their own stalwart personal desires. As the story lumbers on (perhaps a bit longer than it should), Tevye must decide where his heart truly lies: within the bounds of Jewish tradition, or the ever-decaying world surrounding him.

It goes without saying that for a musical to work the songs must rise above and beyond the call of duty. Fiddler contains some 18n musical compositions (arranged by Academy Award-winner John Williams – yep, that John Williams) all of which entertain no matter your views towards this particular style. Unlike, say, Joshua Logan’s Camelot (1967), or Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), which broke far too often from the narrative so that songwriters could make another Oscar bid, Fiddler works in spite of its bombastic language, a testament to Joseph Stein’s potent, inspired writing (he crafted the original Tony-Award winning musical).

Jewison’s film contains musical numbers, yes, but they service the story without ever governing the proceedings – kind of like a Robert Zemeckis special effect vs. those of Michael Bay. Here, story and character matter most, and credit Jewison, ever the actor’s-director (see 1987’s Moonstruck for a fine example of his filmic style), for making the most of his mostly irregular cast. Particularly Topol, whose larger than life performance (he often talks directly to the audience) shimmies and shakes the story to glorious heights (regrettably, Topol lost the Oscar crown to Gene Hackman’s superior Popeye Doyle). The actor believably conveys a frustrated father attempting to rationalize the world, whilst wading through bitter ignorance; or clinging to past dreams.

Crane, likewise, displays spunk as Tevye’s forever patient wife Golde, matching Topol’s larger-than-life persona word for word. One of Fiddler’s most tender moments arrives during their duet “Do You Love Me?” a song that sums up the film’s central theme – do familial (and societal) customs work? Can two indifferent people, brought together by traditional law, truly ever be happy? The answer arrives with ample examinations from both sides of the Yamaka. Arranged marriages make sense, if only because the joining parties willingly work to make the union a successful one; but true love merits happiness, right? (See Gone with the Wind for that answer.)

Fiddler on the Roof is a remarkable film. I decline to use the word “heartwarming”, but only because Fiddler doesn’t quite meet the mold. Is it a family flick? Sure. But it goes farther and deeper than other comparable musicals, particularly contemporary song and dance ensembles Mamma Mia! (2008) and the hugely overrated Chicago (2002). Those films lacked depth and sophistication, not to mention a plot. Fiddler on the Roof is layered with abounding religious and social themes; loveable characters, and sad truths. How does one cling to personal belief in the wake of change?

At one point, when his first daughter rejects a marriage arrangement, Teyve consults the heavens, wondering where he went wrong. As he battles his own instincts, Jewison presents an astonishing perspective: Teyve, his face close to the camera, stands a great distance from his daughter and her suitor (in actuality they stand right next to him); a brief image of his daughter’s face superimposes itself over his – two forms of thinking briefly merge into one. He makes his decision and thus forsakes personal doctrine in exchange for his daughter’s love. Not many musicals present such dilemmas – and this scene arrives some forty minutes into a near three-hour film. Impressive to say the least.

I’ve already mentioned the robust soundtrack, but I need to give a shout out once more to the terrific songs presented here. Starting with the superb and infinitely catchy “Tradition”, Fiddler hits the ground running and never relents. I’ve seen it four times now, and love it more with each viewing. You will too, even if you don’t like musicals.

Presented for the first time on Blu-ray, Fiddler on the Roof lacks the clarity of most on the medium. The picture appeared quite fuzzy at times (a product of the 70s to be sure), while colors lacked the brilliance of, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (one of the finest-looking HD transfers from the disco-era that I’ve yet seen). I suppose that’s not a fault of the studio as much as the filmmaking process at the time. Jewison filmed on location in Yugoslavia, with only a few discernable sets (though I may be wrong in that regard); the setting lends a unique authenticity that a stage setting simply could not provide (maybe that’s why I liked it so much).

The sound, on the other hand, explodes – clearly rendered in high-definition audio. Songs are clear, dialogue clean, with only the occasional noise interference (during some of the quieter scenes).

The extras are terrific – offering great insight despite their length. The first presents a nice look at Jewison’s filmmaking style; a near-hour long documentary that shows Jewison filming numerous sequences, intercut with moments where he worries about the film’s success. This is the kind of stuff I want to see more of on Blu-ray releases – directors and actors working – set ups, miscues, technical problems; director’s shouting orders, chomping on cigarettes, presenting his cast and crew with enthusiasm. You really see the emotion in his face; the exhaustion often presented from making a big-budget Hollywood film. Other snippets give Jewison a chance to look back on the film – he even supplies a feature-length commentary. (I’m still not a big fan of these – who has time to listen to three-hour commentaries?)

I liked the brief John Williams bit, if only because I’m a film score enthusiast. Williams talks about the film, but must share the spotlight with Jerry Brock and Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein (the original play’s creators). Nevertheless, Williams successfully expanded the score to fit a motion picture medium – you can hear his typical (if not yet recognizable) style peaking through the songs.

The remaining features explore the dream sequence, presented in full-on color; a nice fifteen-minute storyboard to film comparison; trailers, TV spots, and a DVD copy.

Fiddler on the Roof represents the Hollywood musical at its most astute. A terrific, light-hearted, but deep thinking dramedy filled with dazzling performances, and ponderous, insightful, even timeless themes. Norman Jewison respectfully dissects Jewish culture, but makes it relatable for all religious (and non-religious) sects alike. A true classic.

RATING 8 / 10