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Blu-ray Review: Fiddler on the Roof

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The Norman Jewison directed 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof is unquestionably about Judaism and Jewish tradition, but the truth is that it’s also about so much more than that.  It’s about the human condition; it’s about family; and it’s about how we all learn to relate to people who are different, be they of a different age, gender, religion, or background.  It is impossible to sit and watch the three hour tour-de-force and not find something in it which you can see mirrored in your own life.

At the heart of the film ,and repeatedly breaking the fourth wall, is Tevye (Topol in an Oscar nominated performance).  Tevye is a Jewish milkman living with his wife, Golde (Norma Crane), and five daughters in the village of Anatevka in Tsarist Russia just after the start of the 20th Century.  It is not an easy life for Tevye, his family, or any of the other members of the community, but as he would tell you, it’s tradition and so that is what he does.

As much as Tevye may appreciate and respect tradition, he finds that his three oldest daughters – Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small) – don’t necessarily want to follow in the same path.  Over the course of the film, one by one, they all ask for permission to marry someone that they love and who is not of Tevye’s choosing.  Their desire to not wholly abandon life as they and their family know it, but to tweak it slightly.

Just as it does today for all of us, the world around Tevye is changing and the ways that worked from him when he was young don’t work for his daughters.  What the film doesn’t say overtly is that it’s entirely probably that the way Tevye does things aren’t really the way his parents did, no matter how much he may argue that he is simply following tradition.  The reality is – and the film acknowledges this – that we don’t live in a vacuum and things change from generation to generation, it’s not always an easy change to deal with, but simply sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t work either. 

Towards the end of the film, Tevye acknowledges to the audience that he has repeatedly been forced to bend in order to make his daughters’ happy.   However, at that same moment, Tevye insists that he can bend no more, that the latest request from one of daughters is simply too much to bear.  Tevye refuses to acquiesce, refuses to turn from his tradition on this occasion, and the result is so cataclysmic within the world of the film that not only does the movie rapidly draw to a close, but it does so with the inhabitants of Anatevka forced to leave their homes and give up nearly everything that they have.  Tevye’s refusal to move away from this one tradition of his ends up with his losing almost everything.  By ending in this manner, we’re being told that in order to stay who we are we have to give up some of the same.  It’s an essential truth of the world – the Earth keeps spinning and while looking back and honoring the past is appropriate, becoming stuck in it is all too easy and none too good.

Alongside this story of tradition and changes to it, is beautiful, Oscar-winning, cinematography by Oswald Morris and an incredible set of songs (screenplay by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, adaptation and orchestration by John Williams).  Whether or not one has ever seen the movie before, it is nearly impossible to go through life and not have heard at least one of the songs. 

All of this put together – the story, the visual presentation, the music, and some great acting – make Fiddler on the Roof a true classic in every sense of the word.  The film is now 40 years old but remains as vibrant, breathtaking, and true as it ever has been.

The 40th anniversary Blu-ray release sports a new 7.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio track that sounds absolutely spectacular.  It is clear and crisp with no hints of noise or pops that you might think a film from 1971 would have.  When the music plays (and it plays a lot), it is full, rich, and entirely immersive.  The visuals, while impressive, are not quite as clean.  There is a noticeable flicker in several scenes, most notably when the sky is present.  By and large the print is a clean one, although there is certainly the occasional bit of dirt.  There is an ever-present (as there should be) grain to the picture, but still a good deal of detail.

The release also comes with a DVD version of the movie and a number of special features, including a storyboard to film comparison; a deleted song; two different pieces on the music itself (one about Williams work and one about the original music from the play); and a look at the how Harris, Marsh, and Small got their roles and their work on set.  All of those pieces are relatively interesting, but better are two different pieces on Jewison, an audio commentary by Topol and Jewison (recorded sepearately), and a discussion on the filming of Tevye’s dream.  You can watch this last sequence with the original full-color filming side by side with the desaturated final version or watch the full color version with an introduction by Jewison.  All in all, there is a lot to watch and learn about what went into making this classic movie and while not of it is anything that simply has to be watched, it is all worth a look.  It must also be said that MGM has, almost inexplicably, opted to not produce a main menu for the film.  All the special features are accessed from a pop-up menu which can only be seen from the main movie.  It is an odd and disappointing omission for an otherwise strong release.

Fiddler on the Roof is a great movie, a great musical, and a great rumination on life.  It really is so much more than a simple look at a Jewish family and community in Russia, offering to anyone who wants to see it a full view of how we are all affected by the ever-changing world and how we all must learn to deal with the changes, no matter how hard that may be.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.