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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Fiddler on the Roof
Fiddler on the Roof
MGM // G // January 23, 2007
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted January 22, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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The Movie:

A three-hour musical about the plight of the Jews around the time that the Russian Revolution was starting to come to a boil might not sound like a recipe for fun and excitement but Norman Jewison's Oscar Winning 1971 epic, Fiddler On The Roof makes it work. The secret to the film's success? By opening up the themes and ideas that the story is based on to people of all races, religions and cultures, by shooting one of the best looking movies in history with care and precision and by packing the film with catchy and completely appropriate musical numbers. This is truly one of those films that really can appeal to anyone, whether they like musicals or not, whether they have an interest in the period of the country in which its set or not, or whether they have the patience for a three-hour film or not. It's truly a picture that transcends cinematic boundaries on every level – it's a masterpiece. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and it won three of them (it lost Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor to The French Connection - no shame in that!)

The film is fairly simple on the surface. It tells the story of a Jewish dairy farmer named Tevye (played by Topol of Flash Gordon and For Your Eyes Only) who works day and night to support his wife, Golde (Norma Crane), and his daughters – Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small). Tzeitel is the oldest of the three girls and much to the dismay of her man hungry sisters, her father is trying to marry her off. He'd prefer she wed a learned man while mom is more concerned about her future son-in-law's financial stability. The local matchmaker, Yente (Molly Picon of the first two Cannonball Run films!), tells Golde that a local butcher named Lazer Wolf (Paul Mann), who is quite well off, has his eyes on making Tzeitel his bride.

There are a few problems with this scenario – Lazer and Tevye haven't always gotten along so well, and Tzeitel isn't all that interested in him, instead she prefers her childhood friend, Motel Kamzoil (Leonard Frey of The Magic Christian). On the other hand, Tevye knows that without any sort of substantial dowry to offer prospective suitors his girls should maybe do the best that they can even if it means settling a little bit. Tradition dictates that the girls should wed whosoever the matchmaker finds for them, but traditions aren't always appropriate, particularly where matters of the heart are concerned. While all of this is going on, the village needs to be concerned with the encroaching Russian Revolution, a political uprising of massive proportions that could see them run out of the small village they've all worked so hard to turn into a community.

The most lauded aspect of Fiddler On The Roof is the music, and with good reason. Written by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock and conducted by none other than John Williams, the score and the musical numbers that make up so much of the movie are perfect. The vocals vary in quality depending on the performer singing the song, but by and large they're also perfect (particularly when Topol does his thing, the man has an amazing voice). Aside from that, however, there are the characters – with most of the cast members coming across as genuinely likeable it's easy to start to feel for their various plights and problems and understand why they feel the way that they do about the scenarios in which they have found themselves. These two qualities intertwine and make for a film that has a genuine heart and soul to it – this goes a long way towards the film's success.

Jewison keeps the film moving at a solid pace, which is important when the movie is as long as Fiddler On The Roof is. Complimenting Jewison's assured style is some amazing Oscar winning cinematography from Oswald Morris who does a fantastic job of capturing the detail of the sets and the costumes and who keeps the choreography looking tight. Thirty-five years later the movie has lost none of its power or its charm and the film and the musical that it was based on and it continues to be a fan favorite whenever the production tours or the film plays revival screenings.

Video:

Fiddler On The Roof is presented in a very strong 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There's a bit of grain here and there and the odd speck on the image but otherwise the picture looks quite nice. The color reproduction, which entails a lot of Earth tones and browns and oranges contrasting against brighter colors depending on the scene, is handled very well and the skin tones look terrific. There is a bit of shimmer here and there as well as the odd mild compression artifact but other than that there's little to complain about here. Fine detail in both the foreground and the background of the image is strong throughout and the picture consistently displays a nice, filmic feel.

Sound:

MGM supplies audio options in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital Mono in the film's native English, as well as dubbed tracks in Dolby Digital Mono for French and Spanish speaking viewers. Optional subtitles are provided English and Spanish and an English closed captioning option is provided for the feature.

Note: Both the audio and video on this release appear to be the same as what appeared on the last special edition release from MGM.

Those who want to replicate the closest thing to the original theatrical viewing experience will no doubt want to take advantage of the mono track and it does the trick nicely presenting the film in a clean and concise mix without any hiss or distortion. Unfortunately no stereo track (which was apparantly the original sound mix for the first theatrical run) has been included. Those who don't mind a little updating, however, will find that the 5.1 Surround Sound mix brings more power to the musical numbers and does a very nice job of separating the background effects and voices during the group scenes and the scenes that take place in the village. Nothing in this mix is so over the top that it doesn't sound like Fiddler On The Roof, it's simply been revamped to take advantage of the directional ability that a surround sound setup offers. Either way, take your pick – both options are nicely handled here.

Extras:

The extras are spread across the two discs in this set, and those who own the previous special edition release might be a little irked to see just how much of the supplemental material here has been ported from that set. At any rate, things start off with a genuinely interesting audio commentary courtesy of director Norman Jewison and star Topol. Considering that the length of the film is three hours you'd think that there would be some dead air to content with but surprisingly enough, this is a very active and interesting track. If you've seen the movie countless times, give this track a shot as it's quite in-depth and covers the making of the film from both in front of the camera and from behind it. The two men seem to enjoy each other's company and there's a very nice sense of humor throughout the track and while Jewison does dominate the talk, Topol definitely gets in his fair share of stories. Jewison covers casting, the difficulties in bringing a musical to the big screen and the various cast and crew members he worked with on the project while Topol's points focus more on his fellow cast members and some of the musical bits. All in all it's quite well rounded and genuinely interesting.

Up next is the 1971 Canadian Film Board documentary, Norman Jewison – Filmmaker (again, taken from the last DVD release) which is a fifty-minute documentary that covers Jewison's career up through the production of Fiddler On The Roof. Directed by Douglas Jackson the majority of this documentary focuses on Fiddler's production but alongside plenty of footage of the man on set doing his job, we also get to hear him talk about some of his earlier projects and how he feels about the film industry at the time that this documentary was shot. This is a nice mix of fly on the wall behind the scenes footage and formal interview clips and it gives us a good look at Jewison's methods as a director and a few interesting glimpses at his personality as well. He comes across as under a lot of pressure from the producers and it shows when he rips into some of the crew on set at one point – there was a lot of money wrapped up in the film and one gets the impression that he's very cognizant of the fact that had this film flopped it would have killed his career.

Another documentary carried over from the previous special edition entitled Norman Jewison Looks Back is here, and it's broken up into five chapters that more or less explain what is covered: On Directing (which is simply Jewison explaining his thoughts on what a director should do), Strongest Memory (the director talks about seeing the show on Broadway for the first time), Biggest Challenge (Jewison discusses some of the obstacles he ran into while working on the project), On Casting (where he talks about who was cast in which part and why) and A Classic (wherein her covers how he feels about having worked on a film that is now considered a classic). Some of the material that's in here has been covered in the commentary and the first documentary but given that this is more modern than the 1971 documentary it's worth checking out just to get a different perspective from Jewison on his work. Combined, these five bits total roughly ten-minutes in length.

Jewison appears again, reading the Sholom Aleichem Stories over top of some storyboards and film stills that show the filmed version of these stories playing out. Jewison also shows up for Historical Background which is a segment where he talks about the real life events that inspired Fiddler On The Roof over top of some great photographs courtesy of Ann Reis. This was carried over from the previous DVD release.

A Storyboard-To-Film Comparison contains two distinct still gallery sections where we see all manner of storyboard and production art. Also included in this section are comparisons between the storyboards and the filmed versions of the following scenes from the movie: Tradition, Matchmaker, Introduction To Miracle Of Miracles, Tevye's Dream and Lazar Wolf And Tevye. This was carried over from the previous DVD release.

New to this release is Interview With John Williams: Creating A Musical Tradition where we see some interview segments with Williams and a few of the people that he collaborated on for this project. At twelve-minutes in length this isn't as in-depth as it maybe should have been given the importance of Williams' contribution to the film, but it is nice to see it acknowledged and touched on, however briefly.

Another new featurette entitled An Interview with Tevye's Daughters is, as you could probably guess from the title, a collection of interviews with Rosalind Harris (who talks about how Bette Midler was passed over for the role), Michele Marsh and Neva Small. This is fairly interesting and again, as it starts off with some comments from the casting director. It's nice to see these actresses acknowledged as they all play fairly important roles in the production. At sixteen-minutes in total it doesn't go into an insane amount of detail and it might have been nice to have the three record a commentary track together regardless, they've got some interesting stories to tell about their time on set and about why they were chosen for the parts that they played in the film.

A third new featurette, Set In Reality - Production Design, is an excellent ten-minute look at what went into making the sets for the movie by way of an interview with designer Robert Boyle and some great behind the scenes footage and photographs. Boyle talks about the specific needs of the production and how he and his team tried to address them and throughout we get a peak at how this was accomplished. It's a little on the short side but it's an excellent and really interesting segment.

The last new supplement for this release is Songs of Fiddler on the Roof a fifteen-minute interview with Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick where they cover what went into writing the music that has gone on to become so famous. It's interesting to hear how they collaborated on various compositions and what they were going for with a few specific pieces of music.

Rounding out the extra features are the Any Day Now deleted song (the song exists but it was never filmed, though the introduction was and it's here) and the full color version of Tevye's Dream Sequence (with an optional video introduction from Jewison and a side by side comparison option), extensive production notes (this feature actually shows you scans of the original casting notes, make up notes, things like that – much more interesting than you might expect!), a gallery of production photos and artwork, a gallery of promotional materials, three trailers, a teaser trailer, two television spots, production credits, animated menus and chapter stops. The two discs are housed inside a plastic keepcase, which in turn rests inside a cardboard slipcase containing identical cover art. These were all carried over from the previous DVD release. Inside the keepcase is an insert with a two page essay on the film (no author is credited) and with the chapter listings printed on the back.

Final Thoughts:

Fiddler On The Roof is just a fantastic film in every way possible. If the running time is a little long, so be it because the movie makes up for it with some truly beautiful musical numbers and some gorgeous sets and cinematography. The story is genuinely inspiring and uplifting and the performances are uniformly strong throughout. MGM's new two-disc set doesn't offer enough new supplemental material to earn a Collector's Talk rating for those who already own the previous special edition release from a few years back, but for anyone interested in the film who doesn't already own a copy, it certainly comes highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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