Wednesday, April 6, 2011

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray (Mirisch Company 1971) Fox/MGM Home Entertainment

For sheer emotional content few musicals can rival director Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof (1971); a devote celebration of faith, life and humanity made for the Mirisch Company at a critical juncture in Hollywood's history. By 1971 musicals were hardly considered bankable box office. The overwhelming success of the stage play convinced the Mirisch Company to fund the project, shot on location in and around Zagreb in the former Yugoslavia and also at England's Pinewood Studios. Jewison, better known for his hard-hitting dramas, assumed a monumental task in bringing this much beloved stagecraft to the big screen. On stage, with its vaguely designed sets, surrealistically lit to convey mood and emotions Fiddler on the Roof had been a stunning example of stage-bound artistry and craftsmanship . On film, it demanded a more concrete realism to depict the Russian village of Anatevka. Alas, in re-imagining the show as a living history rather than an impressionist snapshot something became lost in the translation. 
Jewison also had to grapple with an elephantine organization of thousands of extras, most of whom did not speak English as their first language – if, in fact, they understood it at all. Relying on an interpreter for crowd scenes, Jewison and his company were besought by chronic inclement weather that refused to cooperate, sending the entire schedule into a tailspin of delays that threatened to end not only the film's shoot but also Jewison's career as a director. Worse, the system behind the mounting of such super productions had steadily eroded to a point where every movie made needed to come in on time and on budget or face the possibility of utter financial ruin for the company funding it.
Yet, none of these internal stresses seems to have impacted Fiddler on the Roof, although readily Jewison was driven to distraction by stern communications from UA’s nervous front office and prone to occasional outbursts on the set. At the time the film was being made there was also a minor critical backlash in the decision to cast Topol as Tevye. On stage, veteran actor Zero Mostel had created an iconic character much beloved and embraced by audiences and critics. Yet, in Topol the producers and director made an inspired second choice, one that would ultimately elevate the actor’s cache in Hollywood and seal Fiddler’s success.
Based on Sholom Aleichem's Tevye's Daughters, Fiddler on the Roof is the story of Tevye; a simple farmer whose idyllic pastoral life is turned topsy-turvy when his daughters all choose to fall in love for themselves. What sacrilege! Women do not choose who they marry. They are betrothed in arranged marriages made by their parents. After all, it's tradition! And in the tiny Tsarist Russian village of Anatevka, tradition is everything. Tevye, however, is not a tyrannical patriarch. But he is very poor, relying on wife Golde (Norma Crane) to hire Yente the matchmaker (Molly Picon) to find his five daughters suitable husbands. Out of kindness, Tevye arranges for a visiting scholar, Perchik (Michael Glaser) to tutor his daughters - then, an unheard of prospect for young women.
But Tevye also arranges for his eldest, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) to marry the wealthy widower, Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann), a man thirty years her senior. The match will ensure not only Tzeitel's own prosperity but also the family's. The only thing it will not guarantee is love, for Tzeitel's heart belongs to the penniless, though kindly tailor, Motel Kamzoil (Leonard Frey) instead. Meanwhile, Tevye's second daughter, Hodel (Michele Marsh) has fallen hopelessly in love with Perchik who is also penniless, though he loves her dearly. After much consternation, Tevye relents to Tzeitel and Motel's marriage because he realizes how dearly they love one another. Tevye's acceptance proves the catalyst for Hodel's confession that she loves Perchik.
At first, Tevye is enraged. Gradually, he relinquishes his control on Hodel also, again because he cannot stand in the way of true love. Perchik joins the revolution against Tsarist Russia and is exiled to Siberia. Hodel leaves home to join him, vowing to Tevye that they too will be married under a canopy like Tzeitel and Motel. The third act of Fiddler on the Roof is a tragedy of epic proportions grafted onto the intimate story of a family in steep decline. Tevye's third daughter, Chava (Neva Small) has fallen for a handsome Russian soldier, Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock) who is an Orthodox Christian. Tevye forbids Chava this relationship but she disobeys her father to marry Fyedka in a Russian Orthodox Church. Unable to forgive her this renunciation of her Jewish faith, Tevye disowns Chava who leaves the family commune heartbroken.
Later, the Jewish inhabitants of Anatevka are told by the Russian provisional guard that the government has decided they can no longer live on their lands. As Tevye packs up his family and prepares for the arduous journey to America, Chava and Fyedka come to the house to declare that they too have decided to leave because they will not live in a country where such oppressions exist. Although Tevye shows signs that he may forgive Chava her marriage, he tells Tzeitel to go on ahead and tell Chava and her husband, "God be with them." This reconciliation pleases Golde and his other daughters. Tevye departs with his family down the lonely and uncertain open road with the fiddler coming up from behind, playing the 'tradition' song.
Fiddler on the Roof is quite unlike any other musical before or since. On stage its social critique was a superbly rendered history of injustices that shared in equal portions of memorable song, dance and melodrama. On film, this precarious balancing act became more challenging for Jewison, who clearly saw the film as more a human history than a musical. 'Opening up' the play to satisfy its Super Panavision 70mm cinematography, Oswald Morris creates a rich tapestry of tangibly rural visual splendors. These fill the eye, but ironically deprive the story of its more poignantly moments of intimacy. If the film does have a weakness, it remains Tommy Abbott's choreography. On stage, Jerome Robbins had evolved a mesmerizing tapestry of dance. In the film, camera movement substitutes for choreography, the one exception being the intricate dance at Tzeitel's reception. Here, Abbott borrows heavily from Robbin's original choreography. Unfortunately, this pageantry is interrupted by Jewison's heavy-handed editing and a camera that refuses to stand still or stay focused long enough to fully appreciate the dancers in their movements.
Nevertheless, Fiddler on film remains a memorable outing. The sets, particularly Tevye's farm appear authentic. Sheldon Harnick's songs and Jerry Bock's music have been lovingly preserved with commendable performances that have stood the test of these passing years. Composer John Williams’ underscoring cleverly retains the illusion of being a part of the original stage show, linking theme and character development into a cohesive cinematic experience; unique yet adhering to the fidelity of the original stage show. In the final analysis, Fiddler on the Roof yields to a bounty of riches as emotionally satisfying as they have endured as a cultural touchstone of the American musical theater.
Fox/MGM Home Video has released Fiddler on the Roof in a 40th Anniversary Blu-ray that is – in a word – disappointing. It appears as though Fox has used the same digital files scanned for the DVD image harvest for this Blu-ray, merely bumping them to a 1080p signal. The results speak for themselves; a lack of anything more than marginal improvements over the DVD in all departments. Colors are only slightly more refined. Contrast is the same. Film grain appears inconsistently throughout and there are some curious moire patterns that also plagued the DVD – imported over and even more glaringly obvious in hi-def. The film ought to have been split across two discs or, at the very least, had its extra features carried over onto another disc. Instead, we get a 3 hour feature and nearly an hour of extras squeezed onto one disc, compromising the overall bit-rate for the feature film. Blu-ray’s capabilities are good – just not that good! Does Fiddler look better on Blu-ray than it did on DVD? Unquestionably, yes. Does it look as good as it should? Absolutely not!
The audio has been remastered in 7.1 Tru-HD with impressive results. Aurally, dialogue is still frontal sounding and rather tinny at times. But the music has been lovingly preserved with exceptional clarity. Extras include a fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ documentary produced at the time the film was being shot in Zagreb. There's also a rather funny and engaging audio commentary from Jewison and Topol, featurettes on Tevye's daughters, the dream sequence in color, outtakes and audio tracks, plus a short subject on John Williams and how he created the underscoring. Bottom line: I suppose I’ll recommend this one. But as a Blu-ray it’s not the best and that’s a shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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