Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
I must have mentioned it before: I’m not a fan of film musicals. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like the genre, but I don’t like something just because it’s a musical. At the same time, there are a lot of musicals that I do like a lot, and they generally find ways of elevating the material, of making it more effective, because the characters in them have this odd habit of breaking into song every now and then.
Norman Jewison is probably most famous for In the Heat of the Night, with the original Thomas Crown Affair a close second, but for me he’ll always be the director who filmed Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Jesus Christ Superstar is my favourite of those two, but that’s at least in part because it was the first musical I’d ever watched, and I remember sneaking up to my parents’ bedroom and putting on their vinyl of the original cast recording on their stereo when I was a child. It’s dated, a product of its time, and some parts (Judas!) definitely work better than others (Simon Zealotes!), but it introduced me how the form of the musical could be used to heighten emotions in a way not too dissimilar from how Elizabethan theatre uses verse. And it’s got some cracking songs.
For me, Fiddler on the Roof only came later in spite of having been made two years earlier (I again have that cheap excuse of not having been born for the premiere of either), and it wasn’t the same kind of formative experience for me, but it is still a delight to watch. There’s many a hummable tune in the film, the characters are fun, as is the staging of the songs, and the music is used well to tell us who these people are and what they want – sometimes with surprising nuance, considering that many musicals prefer to paint mainly with primary colours. Fiddler on the Roof also uses the more sombre colours on the palette, seeing as it handles themes such as the persecution of Jews, pogroms and exile. And yet it manages to tell not just one but several stories of romance at the same time, as the main character, the milkman Tevye, comes to terms with his daughters falling for men that are decidedly not what he imagined: a poor tailor, a Marxist and even a goyim. The sentimentality is leavened by the folksy wit of the story and of Tevye as a narrator, but Fiddler on the Roof doesn’t shy away from tragedy either, both on an epic, historical scale and on a more intimate one. (A point could possibly be made about the film presenting a twee, sentimental version of Jewish culture for a predominantly Gentile audience, but that’s something for another time and possibly another blogger.)
Come to think of it: even though I don’t consider myself a big fan of musicals, I did grow up with a lot of them: Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, Oliver!, Milos Forman’s adaptation of Hair, and obviously the animated and live-action Disney movies (though the German dubs of the songs were dreadful, and for a while that’s all we had). Together with old war movies, they may be what I remember best watching with my parents and my sister, which may explain why, in spite of feeling that I need to say I’m not majorly into musicals, I have a fondness for them. The more I deny being a fan of musicals, the more I remember movie musicals that I like a lot. I remember one trip to the UK via Belgium (to get to England we used to travel through Europe by car and take a ferry from Zeebrugge across the Channel) where we spent the night at a hotel before crossing over, and I zapped through the TV channels and found this weird, colourful, funny, Motown-inspired film about a man, a woman and a killer plant from outer space that I simply couldn’t stop watching until it was over. And of course there were West Side Story and My Fair Lady, and later films such as Woody Allen’s delightful Everyone Says I Love You or the Halloween perennial The Nightmare before Christmas, John Carney’s Once and Sing Street, or even later TV fare such as Buffy‘s “Once More With Feeling” and Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. And I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Perhaps I should finally stop protesting too much and accept the truth: I like musicals.
Just don’t ask me about Rent, because I might just feel called upon to bite your head off. And then burst into song.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.