Arguably the last great movie musical, Fiddler on the Roof (1971) premiered just as genre was grinding to a halt, the victim of too many expensive, studio-busting flops that all but ended the era of Arthur Freed-type original movie musical and big roadshow releases of Broadway adaptations. Though rock musicals like Tommy and Disney-type animated musicals would continue, as a viable genre 1971-72 was really the end of the line. In an era of financial disasters like Song of Norway (1970), Man of La Mancha (1972), and Lost Horizon (1973), Fiddler was an anomaly, a $50 million blockbuster so popular it was even theatrically reissued in 1979.
Director Norman Jewison, in faithfully but cinematically adapting the 1964 Broadway musical by Jerry Bock (music), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics), and Joseph Stein (book), from Sholem Aleichem's Tevye and his Daughters, makes the right decisions about 95% of the time, including several risky choices that really pay off. He opens it up visually while at the same time making the personal and spiritual conflict much more intimate. As Mary Poppins liked to described herself, this Fiddler is practically perfect in every way.
The title had been released on DVD a whopping four times between 1998 and 2007. The new Blu-ray carries over the various standard-def extras released previously, including one of the best audio commentaries tracks ever done, featuring Jewison and star (Chaim) Topol. The Blu-ray visibly improves on those older editions, though like other heavily filtered 'scope films (e.g., the 1978 Superman), to the naked eye the high-def upgrade is modest. To buy or not to buy boils down to personal preference: If you've held out till now I heartily endorse this release, but if you're perfectly satisfied with one of those earlier DVD releases, you might want to see this disc in action first.
In turn of the century Tsarist Russia, milkman Tevye (Topol) lives in the Jewish section of Anatevka, with the Jews segregated from but otherwise peacefully coexisting with their Christians neighbors and the more openly anti-Semite Russian soldiers. Tevye lives with his shrewish wife, Golde (Norma Crane), and their five daughters, the three eldest fast approaching marriageable age: Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michèle Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small). Though poor, Tevye adores his children and is grounded in his faith's many traditions - even those whose origins bewilder him.
The film colorfully depicts these orthodoxies, sometimes contrasting Jewish traditions with those of the Christians nearby, but the story is much more universally humanistic: in short, the foundations of Tevye's faith are tested as each of three eldest daughters falls in love.
Meddling matchmaker Yente (Yiddish theater icon Molly Picon) helps arrange a marriage for Tzeitel to the wealthy but much older village butcher, Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann), but she loves a poor, timid tailor, her childhood sweetheart, Motel Kamzoil (Leonard Frey). Children arranging their own match to one another? For Tevye this is unthinkable, absurd.
Meanwhile, Hodel falls in love with Perchik ([Paul] Michael Glaser), a hotheaded young communist constantly challenging Old World traditions, while avid reader Chava falls in love with a handsome - but Christian - Russian named Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock). Each relationship chips away at Tevye's traditional patriarchal role. All this unfolds as raids by the Russian soldiers increase and the Jewish community fears a full-fledged pogrom of Anatevka may soon be ordered.
Zero Mostel famously starred in the original Broadway production, one of two signature roles (Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum being the other) after more than a decade as a victim of the blacklist and virtually unable to work. Though Mostel starred in the movie version of Forum and had recently set the screen on fire in Mel Brooks's The Producers (1968), Jewison instead cast Israeli actor Topol, who headlined the West End production.
It was a monumentally shrewd decision. Though Mostel's overpowering presence and penchant for improvisation helped the movie version of Forum it would have been disastrous for Fiddler. Topol gives the kind of wonderfully nuanced performance that Mostel probably would have resisted, and Topol is frankly much better at the straight drama than Mostel, for all his talent, could have been. All the more amazing is that Topol was just 35 when he made the film, yet his performance and the subtle make-up completely convince the audience that he's much older.
Norma Crane, seven years his senior, is fine, but the other stand-out performances are Rosalind Harris and Leonard Frey as Tzeitel and Motel, she having wonderfully expressive, fragile features and he a perfect contrast - thin, nervous, inarticulate - to Topol's methodical, salt of the earth Tevye. Harris and Frey are so good in fact that the other romantic pairings, while well-cast, don't have quite the same impact.
The only misstep really in the entire film is "Tevye's Dream," a highlight of the stage production in which Tevye, needing to persuade Golde that the arranged marriage of Tzeitel to Lazar Wolf would be a bad idea, tells her of a prophetic nightmare in which the ghost of Fruma-Sarah, the butcher's first wife, jealously threatens to murder Tzeitel within three weeks of her wedding.
What could have been both genuinely scary and funny at once instead is merely silly, too broadly done and deliberately theatrical. Jewison desaturates the color for this sequence but it still lacks the impact it might have had.
On the other hand, both his staging and especially his cutting of the musical numbers (some adapted from Jerome Robbins's original choreography) and all of the straight dramatic scenes are just superb, full of rich, earned emotion that still resonates with audiences 40 years on. Many of the famous songs ("Tradition," "Sunrise, Sunset" "To Life") are done to perfection.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 35mm Panavision then blown-up to 70mm six-track magnetic stereo for its initial roadshow run, Fiddler on the Roof looks very good throughout, though because of the frequent use of filters and the inherently softer anamorphic lensing, it's not quite the visual revelation of large format musicals on Blu-ray like White Christmas (in VistaVision) or MGM's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (in Super Panavision 70), but it still gets high marks. One of the few upgrades is a lossless 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix, but earlier 5.1 surround versions were perfectly fine, too. The region "A" disc includes optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles, and on my Japanese PlayStation 3 player hidden Japanese subtitles and menu screens also became available, with MGM/Fox helpfully making the latter bilingual. (Fiddler remains hugely popular in Japan, as this clip from a 1982 stage production, starring Hisaya Morishige (I think; it's hard to tell under that beard), attests. In another surprising and welcome move the movie starts right up after the Fox and MGM logos, a la most Warner Home Video titles. I hope it's a trend.
Also tossed in is a standard-def DVD copy of the movie, from a 2007 "Decades Collection" release decorated with '70s disco-style font. If ever there was a movie least emblematic of the '70s disco scene, it's Fiddler on the Roof.
Supplements, all in standard definition, replicate earlier DVD releases. It's all great stuff, but nothing is new. Included is: an audio commentary track with Jewison and Topol; featurettes entitled "Norman Jewison, Filmmaker," "Norman Jewison Looks Back," "John Williams: Creating a Musical Tradition," "Songs of Fiddler on the Roof," "Deleted Song: 'Any Day Now,'" "Tevye's Daughters," and "Set in Reality: Production Design" (Some of this material can be sampled at Fiddler's IMDb entry); a storyboard-to-film comparison; a side-by-side comparison of "Tevye's Dream" in full vs. desaturated color; trailers, teasers, and TV spots.
A superb film on many levels, Fiddler on the Roof is a must-see, and looks even better now in high-definition, though the DVD will be fine for those who've been buying those earlier releases and given the lack of new extras save for the remixed audio. Still, it's a great package of material and a DVD Talk Collector Series Title.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.