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FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: COLLECTOR'S EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann
Director:  Norman Jewison
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  179 Minutes
Release Date:  January 23, 2007

“Money is the world’s curse.”

“May the Lord smite me with it!  And may I never recover!”

Film **1/2

In 1971, few could argue that the genre of the movie musical was on life support, waiting for some proverbial doctor to pull the plug.  The glorious era of the 1950s that gave us such great pictures as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris and Gigi and the 1960s that brought West Side Story, Funny Girl and The Sound of Music to the screen was becoming something archaic.  As popular tastes changed, as moods and atmospheres in America were darkening and becoming more cynical, and as the very look and style of motion pictures was taking a turn, this once unique and successful art form was getting left behind.

Fiddler on the Roof, in my estimation, marks one of the genre’s last hurrahs, and while it remains a popular film with much good to say about it, one could also be critical and point out that some of its problems were indicative of why the musical was ceasing to be.  It was a very simple, very charming story stretched out to far too great a length, its bag of songs was mixed at best, it lacked standout dance numbers, and it didn’t have the look of preceding films because it lacked the beautiful, bright, fantastic look of Technicolor.  For me, Fiddler just looks too real to be escapist entertainment, which was the primary appeal of the movie musical.

It features the delightful Topol as Tevye, a Russian Jew who lives in the small, self contained village of Anatevka with his family and neighbors.  He works hard, loves his wife and five daughters with all his heart, has strong faith even though he misquotes the “Good Book” with regularity, and believes in his established way of life.  His signature song is “Tradition”, a song that becomes a point of both humorous and poignant irony, as one of the themes of the film is how tradition doesn’t survive with changing attitudes, ideas, and political climates. 

One by one, Tevye must accept that traditions are coming to an end as each of his eldest three daughters prepares to marry.  The first does so out of love, instead of under the guidance of the town matchmaker.  The second marries initially against her father’s will, to a politically active man who may only have prison to look forward to in his future.  The third is the most painful, as she breaks the most cherished tradition of all, marrying within one’s own faith.

But it’s not just his family that Tevye has to deal with.  The time of the story is pre-revolutionary Russia, where the Tsars wield absolute power, and the Cossacks carry out their will with robotic abandon.  The Jews are becoming less and less welcome in their own homeland, and the time will eventually come where ideologies come to a head, and Tevye and family will be unable to cling to their beloved traditions any longer.

The story is good, but seems a bit deliberately paced.  I’m no editor, but as I watched the film, I detected many places where an economical trim could have happened, or where the rhythm could have been picked up just a bit, and the daunting 3 hour running time could have been made more palatable without sacrificing any of the film’s heart and message.  The characters are all winning…they are mostly two-dimensional, but still effectively charming.  The songs range from the memorable tunes like “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”, “If I Were A Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset” to the less melodic and forgettable ones like “To Life” and “Anatevka”.  The score is nicely punctuated, however, by John Williams’ tasteful orchestrations and Isaac Stern’s haunting, masterful violin solos.

Norman Jewison was obviously attracted to the piece because of its political statements, as he is famed as a director for pictures that have something to say about injustices and intolerances.  He brings the messages out of the material with a minimum of subtlety…none can argue with their potency, but some could argue that the picture could have, and should have, been a lot more fun in the process.  Take The Sound of Music, which radiates good feeling while delivering an ultimate message with a punch.

But the fault may not lay entirely with Jewison.  As mentioned, with the dawn of a new decade, the movie musical was on its last legs.  Because of its inevitable and unfortunate timing, Fiddler must either be considered the last of the truly great musicals, or the film that marked the beginning of the end for an art form..

Video ***

MGM’s anamorphic transfer would be a terrific one, if only it had been a little cleaner on the surface.  Colors are natural looking and beautifully rendered from start to finish, images are always sharp and crisply conveyed, and there is no evidence of grain, enhancement, or other artifacts of compression to mar the viewing experience.  What’s troublesome is the constant, tiny specks and bits of debris that run across the film from beginning to end.  They’re the only thing that signify the movie’s age.  Overall, fans should be quite satisfied, but for the DVD to look so good except for some dirt on the surface of the print is a slight letdown. 

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack is extremely dynamic.  The music provides the audio with all of its punch, and it sounds great here, with the rear channels really only used to open up the orchestrations a little bit.  When it gets loud, it gets really loud, but it never distorts or loses clarity.  High marks.

Features ***1/2

There are some good features on this Special Edition disc, starting with a commentary track by Norman Jewison and Topol (recorded separately).  Jewison’s talk is more scene specific, while Topol speaks from the cuff as his memory opens up.  It’s a fairly good listen, despite some occasional pauses. 

The second disc contains a 50 minute or so documentary on Jewison, filmed during the making of Fiddler, that’s an interesting little piece,  There is a deleted song, “Any Day Now”, a full color version of “Tevye’s Dream”, original stories from author Sholom Aleichem with historical background read by Jewison, storyboards, and trailers.

Summary:

Fiddler on the Roof is a popular film with plenty of good things going for it, but in my estimation, doesn’t quite deserve to take a spot amongst the truly great movie musicals of years previous to it.  But the movie has plenty of fans, to be sure, and they should be pleased with this Collector's Edition offering from MGM.

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