Adapted from the hit stage musical, Norman Jewison’s film version of Fiddler on the Roof has established itself as a classic over and over again since its release in 1971.
“He loves her. Love, it’s a new style… On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?” I’ll hardly be the first to write it, but the reason Fiddler on the Roof, a story about Jewish people and their culture, is so popular, is that its themes have universal appeal. In fact, in a way it hardly matters that the characters are Jewish. As we learn from a famous anecdote, when the first Japanese production of the stage musical opened, the show’s creators traveled to Japan to meet the producer. He said to them, “I don’t understand, I don’t know how this piece can work so well in New York. It’s so Japanese!”
The story is set in pre-revolutionary Russia, and centers around Tevye (Chaim Topol), a poor family man in a small, Jewish town. His three daughters, eldest Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), middle Hodel (Michele Marsh) and youngest Chava (Neva Small), are either ready to marry or darn close. Following their tradition, that means marrying whomever the matchmaker finds and whom Tevye approves. For girls from a poor family unable to offer a dowry, their prospects are understandably slim. Either way, the girls rail against tradition, and want to choose their own matches based on love. Herein lies the film’s universal theme of the conflicting relationship between parents and children, from generation to generation.
Simmering in the background is the Russian revolution, which is leading to oppression of Jews. Many are beginning to feel unwelcome in their villages, with some having already been forced out. This creates another of the film’s universal themes, which is people feeling out of place in their own environment, for reasons of oppression or even – back to the generation gap – just for not buying into their own cultural traditions.
There’s much more to the story, of course, and each step of the way is punctuated by fantastic musical compositions. But I don’t want to spoil any more of the story for anyone who has yet to see this film or the stage version.
But we can discuss the music. With lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock, the songs of Fiddler on the Roof are both magnificent and memorable. The dynamic duo of Bock and Harnick is renowned in Broadway history, having created five different show scores in seven years, including Fiorello, which won Broadway’s equivalent of the Triple Crown: the Tony Award, The New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The pair’s compositions for Fiddler include the well-known songs, If I Were a Rich Man, Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Sunrise, Sunset. John Williams was responsible for adapting and conducting the music for the film version, and it’s obvious the score was safe in his capable hands.
Other major influences on the quality of this film include Oswald Morris (Oliver!), who won an Oscar for his cinematography, and the film’s talented cast, anchored around the pitch-perfect Topol, who was a bit of a controversial pick, given that it was multiple-Tony Award winner Zero Mostel who had created the Tevye role on Broadway.
Fiddler On The Roof is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 22 mbps. In any case, it’s obvious that the film has received special treatment, as more than 30 years later it ranges from outright lovely to just OK in some of the darker scenes. Contrast and sharpness are mostly good, and the colors – though a bit washed out – appear natural. All in all, this is a solid example of how good a film from the early 70s can look today.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is just as spectacular. Purists will likely steer away from the 5.1 mix, but I thought it sounded quite good, and more than did justice to the original master. The mix gives you clear dialog and a full sound on the score and most especially on the famous songs.
There is an Audio Commentary by Norman Jewison and actor Topol.
All of the extras are from previous releases. You also get the Decades Collection DVD of the film.
The repeated extras are:
Deleted Song: Any Day Now.
Interview with John Williams: Creating a Musical Tradition runs about 12 minutes, and covers Williams’ experience working on the film, adapting and conducting the music. It includes interview clips from Williams, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and while it’s not very focused on John Williams’ efforts, it does get into the musical tradition part in some depth.
Set In Reality: Production Design features production designer Robert Boyle remembering his involvement with the film. While Boyle discusses the various aspects of developing “the soul of the film,” we see a mix of video footage, photographs and original design sketches. This is 10 minutes worth watching.
Norman Jewison Looks Back is a collection of interview clips. Here the director/producer speaks about five topics: On Directing, Strongest Memory, Biggest Challenge, On Casting and A Classic?. The titles are pretty self-explanatory, and it’s interesting to compare Jewison’s thoughts here to his comments from older footage in other features on this release. 35 years certainly provides a different perspective.
Finally, Songs of Fiddler on the Roof offers up 15 minutes on the working team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Here the pair discusses – in separate interviews – their inspiration for the songs, their goals in creating the Fiddler score, and most interestingly, how they worked together.
Fiddler on the Roof is widely considered to be among the finest movie musicals of all time. It’s presented here in a worthy Blu-ray high-definition release, with excellent audio and video. Add to that the combination of all of the previous special edition’s bonus material and you’ve got yourself a definitive release.
Some material was written by Gino Sassani