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.