In our fast paced, cell-phone based modern society, tradition has almost completely lost its place. Some would argue that it's gone for good. But if you look closely, you can see it rising above the technological din, clinging to some manner of meaningful life. It is packaged on cable channels and sold as home improvement and/or classic cooking tips. It is channeled through authors in memoirs and essays and categorized as sentimental sense memory. It is scoffed at by tuned in/turned out teens and avoided in favor of more politically correct, diversified ideals. Even in those cultures where the ways of the old country are the most prized – the Italians, the Russians, the Jews – a global market mindset has stepped in, creating chaos in many an ethnic identity. It seems like, at this post-millennial moment, tradition is a stepping-stone to bigger and broader things, not a well considered, well preserved entity. That is why a group like The Epstein Brothers Orchestra is so prized, and so important. Known for almost 70 years as the Kings of Klezmer – a time-honored Yiddish musical genre – they continue, at their octogenarian and septuagenarian ages, to wow audiences and influence countless legions with their sadly sweet songs. Touring everywhere and playing any pavilion, from a South Florida retirement home to a major German metropolis, these elderly entertainers enthrall both fans and scholars with their commitment to this aged world format. As much as an attempt to understand their modern popularity as well as celebrate a trio of lives that have been spent in the purest of pursuits, A Tickle in the Heart is a documentary and a tribute, a languid, eloquent look at some melodic masters and the long forgotten format they are keeping alive.
At one time, they were the toast of New York. No Jewish festival, traditional or otherwise, was complete without a performance by the Epsteins. At one point, they had several bands traveling under the Epstein name, with each individual group containing a sole member of the clan (thereby avoiding and claims of 'false advertising'). And as the Yiddish population swelled, the brothers became quasi-superstars. Their name was irrevocably linked to their own brand of nostalgic charm. Then World War II came along and with it, the death of the Klezmer music movement. It seemed like, in the post-battle boom of the 50s and 60s, tradition was no longer valued. Rejected, but never downtrodden, the four Epstein brothers retired to Florida, each to his own way of life and living. But just like the maxim upholds, everything out dated is reevaluated again, and as more and more Jews tried to get in touch with their heritage and its customs, the more they realized they needed the Epsteins around. Years after their previous popularity, a reclamation took place. Various artists, individuals and groups from around the world came looking for the aged musicians to teach and preach to a new generation. And what a lesson it was/is. Like their father once told them, there is nothing better than playing music for people, as long as it's the type of tune that puts A Tickle in the Heart. And that's exactly what the remaining three Epsteins do in this amazing 1996 documentary.
More than just a showcase for a long lost famous ethnic act, A Tickle in the Heart is an amazingly moving, wonderfully evocative slice of sentiment that functions under several different ideals. First and foremost is the introduction of the remaining Epsteins - Max, Julie and Willie - to a world that previously didn't know they or their music ever existed. As one of the last surviving Klezmer acts from the early days of the genre's immigrant popularity, they represent living artifacts of a time, a place and a sound. Next, we are welcomed into the universe of traditional Jewish culture, a place where the modernization of the religion and the race during the later part of the 20th century is rejected for a more parochial view of the heritage. Then there is the entire Florida retirement ideal, a sun-drench, laid back existence where life slows down to a snail's pace and the elderly drink in the waning warmth. Now in their late 70s and early 80s, the Epsteins live among the floundering fossils of the greatest generation. But they never stop working, always booked into one venue or another to bring their special brand of merriment to those thirsty for time-honored fulfillment. Add in the recording of a CD in Berlin (where, surprisingly, the Hebrew-based sounds are incredibly popular) and in-concert footage of the boys in action, and this becomes a story of more than just melody and the melancholy. A Tickle in the Heart wants to explore more than just a revival of a musical genre. And it comes up with a marvelously dense experience as well.
Naturally, a movie like this relies on its subject to provide the drama and/or the drive to keep us interested, and in the Epstein brothers, filmmaker Stefan Schwietert has found a trio of devilish delights. Beginning with the youngest, drummer Julius, we see how the Epsteins became the biggest name in ethnic music. We are told that, from the beginning, the Epstein household was one drowned in song. Mamma Epstein instilled a sense of pride and productivity regarding learning an instrument that the boys would carry for decades, through all the popularity and passivity. Julius comes across as the most fun loving, more than happy to jump onto the family bread and butter bandwagon long after the older Willie and Max had set the pace. Always the worrywart, Willie is the quasi-perfectionist, temperamental and touchy about his playing and the brothers' career. As the manager for the act, as well as lead trumpeter, he spends his days bickering with booking agents (trying to convince them that a weeknight gig is "less prestigious" than a Saturday night show) and his nights flustered over missed notes. Then there is Max, the oldest and most skilled. Studied, focused and intense, he wears the crown of last remaining proprietor of the Klezmer legacy with grace and gravitas. People worldwide seek his advice and his scholarship on the music, and when he's not playing with his brothers, he's schooling the next generation in the almost extinct art.
For those unfamiliar with the Jewish/ Hebrew/ Yiddish culture, the entire Klezmer concept of musicianship and style may seem foreign, - or perhaps oddly familiar. It is easy to see several other Eastern European styles of song – the polka, the traditional gypsy csardas – generating out of this ancient muse. A mixture of improvisation and strict melody interpretation, with several shifts between these dominant dynamics, a Klezmer tune is both a celebration of life and a reminder of strife. It is the sonic equivalent of all the events they usually highlight – weddings, Bar Mitzvahs – times of both incredible joy and existence at a crossroads. In the Epsteins' interpretation of this important idiom, there is very little margin for error. Like a reading from the Torah, or the austere requirements of a religious ritual, the Epsteins treat Klezmer with respect and reverence. They balk at suggestions of modernization, and understand that the only true way to preserve a lost art is to continuously bring it to the people. Like the oral storyteller or the studied historian, the Epsteins see themselves as a combination of entertainment and enlightenment, a chance for people to understand both the elation and the education inherent in Klezmer. That we too, a general contemporary audience without any attachment to either the Jewish faith or a decidedly old world ideal, can get caught up in this exciting sound and celebratory fury means A Tickle in the Heart and the Epsteins are doing their job exceptionally well.
All onstage performance pieces aside (which are wonderful, by the way), A Tickle in the Heart really takes off when we tag along as the brothers make their way around the world to Berlin, both to put on a show and record a CD. Without saying it out loud, the band is practically flabbergasted that a country notorious for the Nazis and the Holocaust would wish to embrace a deeply entrenched Yiddish form of expression. And they are even more surprised when their German shows are better attended by gentiles than members of their own ethnic persuasion. In the studio, the boys bicker and banter, hoping to capture the purity of the music without their advanced age entering in to diminish skills or undermine emotion. There are other aspects of the trip that are equally compelling. As if to showcase the universal appeal and connection Klezmer has, we follow the Epsteins to their grandfather's hometown and witness an impromptu sidewalk show. The few locals who arrive know EVERY song and note by heart and clap along in complete abject joy. The brothers too realize that they hold onto something special, a segment of their own history that the nation they are visiting tried desperately to eradicate – along with the entire race - from the planet. That facet is never outwardly explored in A Tickle in the Heart. Indeed, it is left for a far more telling and touching section of the film.
Back in America, the band goes through their typical day. They travel to New York and meet up with an original member of their old band, who gives us a breakdown of the importance of the boys to the outer boroughs of the city. Everywhere they go, young Jews recognize and embrace the Espteins, a few even being old and/or lucky enough to recall a festival, wedding, or performance they had the honor to attend. As enthralling as these scenes are, the most powerful moments come toward the end. The Epsteins are scheduled to play at a retirement community in South Florida, a safe and secure gated retreat where more than 300 survivors of World War II concentration camps live out the rest of their lives. Every year, the boys put on a show for these residents and every year, it is a heart wrenching experience. We hear a few of the horror stories about individuals who lost entire families, and those who waited several decades before reconnecting with their own people. While each expression is filled with emotion, when the Epsteins play their Klezmer (especially an incredibly moving version of "My Yiddish Mama") they readily speak for everyone. Naturally, the pent up well of sentiment overflows. Right there, before their eyes, one of the grand traditions of their people is being performed and preserved. And it underscores the importance of what the Espteins do. Not only are they safeguarding a time-honored portion of their heritage, they are reminding people of its importance...and its power.
A Tickle in the Heart is not always so profound. For the most part, it is somber and meditative, looking at the world of the Epsteins through a hazy, monochrome microscope (the movie was filmed in black and white). There are gorgeous shots of the Florida and metropolitan New York landscapes and one instantly feels both the nostalgia and the import proposed in the footage. Director Schwietert does not use a straightforward approach to his storytelling, instead opting for a montage mannerism. Mixing all manner of media – music, newsreels, family photos and handheld interaction – he captures the essence of the Epsteins, allowing the narrative to slowly and succinctly fill in the facts necessary to appreciate their artistry and integrity. It is a movie filled with shocking, surprising moments (Willie bargaining over the performance price, which is in the couple HUNDRED, not several thousand dollar range) and is filled with an undeniable exuberance that belies the age of its subject matter. Outside all the contemplative conceits, A Tickle in the Heart is an uplifting and rousing experience. Even if you have no desire to learn about Klezmer music, the Jewish traditions surrounding same or the men who make sure it is still capable of being heard, you will find A Tickle in the Heart an engaging and entertaining experience. The knowledge that life doesn't end once retirement comes around, and that there is still a place for tradition in this sad, prepackaged world should be enough to warrant a look. The fact that the Epsteins are so fascinating and fluent in their craft is an unbelievable bonus.
Filmed in black and white and presented in a dazzling 1.33:1 full screen transfer, A Tickle in the Heart looks perfect. There are those in love with monochrome photography who will argue that the palette here is more a diversity of grays than true shadow and light splendor, but that would be unnecessary nitpicking. While films from the past had the technological resources to get the pure ebony and ivory dichotomy just right, A Tickle in the Heart must make do with what it can achieve. And the results are resplendent, if a little muddy, radiating with a combination of drama and history that compliments this film's concepts brilliantly. In color, this movie would be amusing. In this new, noir setting, it takes on an entire undercurrent of consequence that would otherwise be missing.
With a film like A Tickle in the Heart, sound plays as important a part in the success of the story as any other aspect. If we can't hear the music that forms the basis of the Epsteins' fame, we don't begin to understand their impact. Thankfully, First Run Features delivers a marvelous Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack that keeps everything perfectly modulated and crystal clear. From the dialogue to the dervish dances, the sonics are sensational. Never once do we experience any distortion or drop out and the results make this film as fascinating aurally as it is visually.
First Run Features also provides a couple of interesting extras on what is, otherwise, a rather bare bones affair. There is a text screen of suggested musical recommendations, and a similar word-based brief history of Klezmer. There is also a photo gallery and a series of trailers. But the most compelling piece of added content is a bonus short subject entitled Two Weddings. As a young Jewish man prepares for his marriage ceremony, his grandparents discuss their own nuptials. The only difference is, the older couple were wed on the eve of World War II and then sent off to separate concentration camps. The story of what happens next is amazing, and quite poignant. It also helps to underscore the ethnic issues encompassed in both Klezmer (which is featured in the reception scenes) and A Tickle in the Heart. It is a wonderful addition to this DVD presentation.
Musical taste is as personal as a proclivity can get. Individuals worship at the doorstep of different sonic genres for various reasons: emotional connection, aesthetic attractiveness, and/or its ability to move and uplift. Oddly enough, the Epstein Brothers Orchestra and the brand of music they serve are so ingrained in the Jewish culture that they tend to serve all three ideals. Klezmer is life to the Hebrew heritage, a direct sentimental link to their past. It is also an artistically sound expression of their inner life, loves and laments. Finally, the joyful cries of the Klezmer group, with its mixture of resonance and calls to celebration have the ability to satiate the spirit and fortify the mind. A Tickle in the Heart is a fantastic memento to a family of fine musicians who made it their goal to continue traditions that others left for dead. And thanks to their efforts, the Epsteins have guaranteed that future generations will get to know and understand...and better still, EXPERIENCE the songs and sounds that were so important to their ancestors. While it may not turn you into a fan of Yiddish dancehall tunes, or affect you in the way it does the listeners in the film, you really do have to admit one thing about the Epsteins and their music. It really does put a smile on your soul.
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