Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fiddler on the Roof – 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

There have been a lot of Broadway plays that have made the transition to the big screen, but none seem as unlikely as Fiddler on the Roof.  The play itself was a risky endeavor since many felt that the story of a milkman and his family set in the 1900s in Russia wouldn’t have mainstream appeal. It ended up being the longest running play in history with a ten year run until it was beaten by GreaseIt was inevitable with that kind of success that a movie wouldn’t be made of it and it eventually was by Norman Jewison which later won the Golden Globe for Best Movie (Musical or Comedy) and also a Best Actor award for Topol.  In addition, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three (Best Song Score Adaptation, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound).


Film (4 out of 5 stars)

The film is centered around a poor milkman and his family at the turn-of-the-century in czarist Russia.  Tevye (Topol) plays the financially poor milkman who alternates between talking and complaining to God and trying to uphold tradition of all kinds – whether it’s religious tradition or society’s tradition.  Unappreciated by Tevye, but the world is changing and that kind of global changes brings with it a lot of changes.  Change also takes places on a smaller scale within his own family as Tevye tries to keep his five headstrong daughters to follow tradition.  Teyve’s wife Golde (Norma Crane) also believes in traditions and doesn’t hesitate using a village matchmaker (Molly Picon) to arrange possible marriages for her daughters.

When a proposed marriage to the  wealthy village butcher is agreed upon, Tevye is ecstatic since the man is rich but also because he knows his daughter Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) will be well taken care of.  Unfortunately, Tzeitel has other plans since she wants to marry Motel (Leonard Frey), a poor tailor that she has grown up with.  She begs her father to let her marry the man she wants which goes against all of the traditions that Tevye holds dear.  In a nice filmic touch, we see Tevye consider his daughters pleas and suddenly he is far apart from her in a cinematic conceit despite actually standing right next to her.  It’s occasions like this that allow him to use one of his favorite catchphrases  “On the other hand…” while he debates whether or not tradition or his daughter should come first.  His other phrase which adds a lot of humor to the movie is, “As the good book tells us…” which is always humorous since no one wants to hear it or they constantly correct his claims.

Tevye’s other daughters Hodel (Michele Marsh) and Chava (Neva Small) also test his willingness to bend his traditions for their happiness and each time, he is indignant, funny, and hurt all at once.  His first daughter wants to marry a poor tailor, his second a future communist revolutionary, and his third daughter hurts him most of all because she wants to marry a non Jewish man.  As an audience we get to hear his innermost thoughts since the character constantly breaks the filmic fourth wall and talks directly to us.  He also talks a lot to God as a old friend and has one sided conversations that veer from asking for money to requesting that his horse heal.  Tevye has a some valid reasons for not liking the gentile Russians since his people have been oppressed by them for a long time.  Despite that, Tevye does have a cordial friendship with the local Russian constable (Louis Zorich), who warns him that he’s been ordered by his superiors to cause trouble for the Jews.  Unfortunately when it happens, it happens one the wedding day of one of Tevye’s daughters which ruins the day and briefly makes even the happy-go-lucky Tevye bitter.

The movie, much like Tevye himself never dwells on sadness or anger and even at the end of the movie when there’s plenty to be sad and angry about, Tevye is still able to smile and shrug off the massive injustice that was perpetuated against him and his people.   Without a doubt, the success of this movie hinged on whoever played Tevye and although Zero Mostel originated the role on Broadway, there is no one else that could have played this role as well as Topol, for whom it seems to be tailor-made.  He gives a tour-de-force performance that showcases a gamut of emotions and allows Topol to sing, dance, and play the character with a naturalness that grounds the movie.  What’s even more amazing is that his was only in his mid thirties when he played this role but through fantastic acting, makeup, and some padding, he was able to convincingly fool me into thinking he was older.  His Tevye blusters a lot but his heart is always in the right place and there’s hardly anything he wouldn’t do for his family.

The rest of the cast is also great, especially Norma Crane as his no nonsense wife Golde who complains about her husband with a loving smile the whole movie.  A lot of the humor of the movie comes from the comic interaction between the two and they have a great chemistry together.  There’s also a young Paul Michael Glaser as one of the young suitors who later went on to star in Starsky and Hutch and later directed The Running Man.  The movie wouldn’t be complete without a mention for the wonderful music by Jerry Bock,  Sheldon Harnick,  and Joseph Stein that was adapted by the one and only John Williams before he went on to score Star Wars.  The songs are catchy and meaningful and I especially liked “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset,” both of which were not only entertaining but also moved the story along as songs should do in musicals.  The movie, much like the play, is an affirmation of life and shows how joy, love, and faith can help you survive the hardships we all face.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p (2.35:1) transfer looks really good but still has a few flaws that prevent it from getting a perfect score.  While this transfer is a far cry better than the previous DVD release, it still has some edge enhancement issues and a lot of grain in a few scenes especially the outdoors shots where the sky above Tevye looks rife with noise.  The worst  of it happens at the beginning of the film that looks rough with some flickering but it quickly improves.  I’m not sure why Fox encoded this at the low bit rate of 20MBPS but that may be part of the reason for these issues.  Overall though, the transfer offers excellent detail and suitably inky black levels.  Images have excellent detail with some scenes possessing a startling amount of fine detail for a movie this old.  Colors are accurate but not plentiful,  while flesh tones are natural and accurate throughout.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

This version of The Fiddler on the Roof sports a new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix that sounds great.  From the slow ramp of ambient sound at the start of the movie to the thrilling musical numbers, this mix is quite a bit better than the earlier releases.  My only complaint about this mix is that the mix never found a happy medium.  It was either too low or too high with no middle ground in sight.  Despite that, the front speakers deliver clear dialogue and the rear channels get a piece of the action with some ambiance and also for the musical numbers.  The music, which is so essential for a movie like this to work comes through extremely well.  Much praise must go to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick for their original compositions but John Williams shouldn’t be shortchanged since his efforts won an Oscar and also provided some original music for famed violinist Isaac Stern to play.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars)

The film offers a lot of extras but they are all in standard definition for some reason.
  • Audio Commentary – A pair of commentaries by Norman Jewison and Topol that were recorded separately but edited together.  Both men offer interesting facts about filming the movie in Yugoslavia and also talk about the cast and decisions made during filming.  Between the two men, there isn’t any dead space and I enjoyed listening to this, especially Topol’s track which was also really funny.

  • Norman Jewison Filmmaker – At almost an hour long, this is a fairly comprehensive look back and the challenges Jewison faced while filming in a foreign country.

  • Norman Jewison Looks Back – This featurette is broken up into five different parts and in an obtuse decision doesn’t let you choose a select all option.  The five sections include: On Directing (where Jewison talks about how he was hired for the job and how his name played into it); Strongest MemoryBiggest Challenge (how weather was his worst enemy for this film since they were trying to capture every season on film); On Casting (where Jewison talks about the controversial choice of picking Topol over the originator of the role – Zero Mostel; and finally A Classic? (where Jewison attributes the universal success of the movie to themes such as tradition that resonate with many cultures including the Japanese (where Jewison talks about the cast and the actual villagers from where they filmed).

  • Tevye’s Dream in Color – A look at the color version of the concocted dream story by Tevye before it was desaturated for the final film. 

  • Side By Side Comparison – A look at the dream sequence through a split screen.

  • John Williams: Creating a Musical Tradition – A talk with the master composer who adapted the play and tells us his intentions and how he felt about the original work and how grateful he was to be able to work on it.

  • Songs of Fiddler on the Roof – A talk with the original team behind the music with a mix of new interviews, and some older recordings which allows all three to participate in this segment even though two of them are now dead.  Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick talk about the original play and how much they liked the film version.

  • Deleted Song: Any Day Now – This song, which was meant to introduce Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser) to the audience wasn’t included in the movie but it’s been preserved here.  Since it was never filmed, the songs is played with clips and stills from the film.

  • Tevye’s Daughters – A talk with the three oldest daughters from the movie.  Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small talk about how they were hired and recount their experiences working on the film.

  • Set in Reality: Production Design – A talk with Production Designer Robert Boyle who talks about the effort they went to make the village look real and well used.

  • Storyboard to Film Comparison – A comparison of several musical sequences from storyboards to the final film.

  • Trailers, Teasers and TV Spots

  • Standard Definition DVD copy of the film

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

Fiddler on the Roof benefits from a stellar cast, especially the star turn by Topol (who was also really good in the Bond film For Your Eyes Only). It also offers some great music that makes you want to get up and do the “Rich Man” dance with Tevye.  Norman Jewison did an admirable job directing this movie, because it could have easily veered away into saccharine or gone too dark.  The movie does an admirable job of blending generous humor along with some heavy themes.  Add in the amazing original music and the contributions of John Williams  and you have a winner.
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