I saw two documentaries at the Writers Guild over the weekend. The first was Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, about the making of the musical Fiddler on the Roof -- and it was terrific. It deals more with the show’s cultural impact in relation to society than a detailed look at the making of the of the musical, and though I’d have preferred more of the latter (especially since an album was recently released of many hours of demo recordings between the show's song writers, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock, for which only one tape is used in the film), the movie at least does cover a a good deal of the show's behind-the-scene's history. And what's especially wonderful is that they made the documentary not only while Sheldon Harnick was alive (and still is around at 92), but Jerry Bock, book writer Joseph Stein and producer Hal Prince were all alive, as well, and have since passed away, so extensive interviews with them are all included. And great too that the filmmakers made their movie while there were two productions of Fiddler on the Roof being done in New York (the major 50th anniversary revival and the current, acclaimed Yiddish version, which I've posted video from here), because it allows them to use extensive musical numbers (and interviews) from both. And lots of musical numbers from productions around the world. Fun, too, is that they include an excerpt of Lin-Manuel Miranda's glorious, surprise wedding video of "To Life" -- which I've posted in full here.) There are a great deal of even more extremely interesting things in it, but I’ll leave them out to let you discover them.
One thing I will mention. My only quibble is that they never identify the old man on the park bench playing the show's opening song “Tradition” on the violin at the start of the documentary. They make it slightly more clear when they go back to it at the very end, -- and by "very end" I mean after the closing credits, but a) most people will have left at that point, and b) they still don’t identify him. That violinist is...Sheldon Harnick!. They only have a brief glimpse of his face in the opening scene, but I recognized him AND I also knew that he had been in the School of Music at Northwestern, studying to be a professional violinist. (My Aunt Joan grew up with him and went to Northwestern with him. Family lore is that Aunt Joan's mother was concerned that he would be able to survive as a violinist...) But even though the filmmakers likely assumed that by the end of the film people would recognize him…seriously, how hard would it have been not to assume anything and just superimpose the name of the freaking show’s lyricist on the screen one more time at the end??! Further, I know of three other people who saw the film, and two of them did not realize it was Harnick. HOW ON EARTH can a filmmaker leave that out???! Pointing out that, folks, that is Sheldon Harnick himself playing “Tradition” from FIDDLER on the Roof on the fiddle!!
Fortunately, the film is still wonderful.
Here's the trailer. The day a pretty good job with it -- but the film, of course, goes much deeper, is much richer and far more musical...
The other documentary was about former U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, who was killed in a plane crash in 1961. It's called, Cold Case Hammskjold,.which I liked very much. It looks into the possibility that the airplane crash that killed him was not an accident long-believed, but part of a plot to kill him, something that’ it turns out has been investigated by the U.N., and the South Africa transition team -- and, in fact, is ongoing. The film is done in a very odd, personal way, but it holds your interest all the way through. It doesn’t come to any definitive conclusions or proof, but lays out the evidence it’s uncovered. And most interestingly, the film takes a surprising major turn about two-thirds of the way through to deal with another matter the filmmaker disocvered, that overlaps with the original investigation. I don’t want to say more, in order to keep the surprise.
And this is the trailer. It respectably gets across at least a hint of the quirky nature of the film.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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