Klezmer music is the "soul music" of the Jews, mournful, sentimental, but also surprisingly life-affirming and buoyant. Like a lot of people with Jewish ancestry who grew up with "assimilate first" parents, I wasn't really exposed to this wonderful tradition, but I still remember when I got my first taste of klezmer, albeit in an unusual and modern setting. My mother had a swing era compilation, and I was listening to the Benny Goodman version of "And the Angels Sing," and suddenly there was the most incredible trumpet solo I had ever heard (by Ziggy Elman, I later learned), something that reached right through the speakers and grabbed me by the gut. I knew I'd never be the same. That solo, obviously modeled on klezmer, with its swooping bent notes (more traditionally played on a clarinet), in a section of the song appropriately called "freilach" (Yiddish for cheerful), is an astounding display of technique melded to an underlying emotional truth, and that is the core of real klezmer music. The Last Klezmer, a loving tribute to Polish composer/conductor Leopold Kozlowski (ne Kleinman) by filmmaker Yale Strom, is a wonderfully affecting look at the remants of this tradition as it seeks to survive in a region with a still decimated Jewish population.
Kozlowski is promoted here as the last musician in this ageless tradition trained in the classical, prewar klezmer manner. He talks quite a bit in this film about his family, all of whom were musicians, including his violinist bandleader father and brother, both of whom perished in the Holocaust. In fact, The Last Klezmer is a sort of primer on the Holocaust writ small and personal, making it at times as affecting and effective as some of the more epic film treatments of this difficult subject (interestingly, Kozlowski evidently was a music consultant on Schindler's List).
While the film never really delves deeply into klezmer, preferring to focus on Kozlowski and his personal story, there are some wonderful musical moments, if some of them are unintentionally ironic. In fact two of these moments tend to support the thesis that klezmer, at least for American audiences, has transmogrified itself into pastiches from the Broadway world, albeit works by Jewish composers. When we first see Kozlowski conducting, it isn't a traditional klezmer piece, but rather "Sunrise, Sunset" from a Polish production of Fiddler on the Roof. Later in the piece when Strom asks a music fan at a Lvov, Poland synagogue to sing a song (obviously hoping for something traditionally Yiddish), the man breaks out into "Hello, Dolly," of all things. Now, both Jerry Bock, who wrote Fiddler's music, and Jerry Herman, who wrote both the music and lyrics for Hello, Dolly, are unapologetically Jewish and cull things from their ancestral traditions ("Sabbath Prayer" from Fiddler is in fact a folk melody also used by Shostakovich in his Fifth Symphony, and Herman's first large scale Broadway work was Milk and Honey, about the then-new relatively new country of Israel). But it shows how this long tradition has somehow morphed into something totally "other" as it's spread out into other countries and artistic pursuits. Kozlowski, despite being much more highly trained than a lot of typical shtetl musicians, insists he wants to maintain the "real" tradition of klezmer.
The Last Klezmer has very moving sections as Kozlowski revisits the haunts of his youth as well as the places he was both interred and to which he escaped during World War II. He's reunited with a friend he hasn't seen in 50 years, finds the daughter of his first piano teacher, and also manages to get into the apartment where he had a few happy years with his family before the War broke out. While these are extra-musical moments, they're some of the more emotional segments of this film.
The Last Klezmer is a beautifully heartfelt personal exploration of one man's survival, and his attempt to make his cherished music survive as well. That tradition has passed down to Strom at least, who collaborated with Kozlowski on several rollicking tunes for the soundtrack. The Last Klezmer packs the same sort of gut-punch I first felt when I heard the inimitable Ziggy Elman all those years ago.