Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
A musical focusing on a group of Jews in a small town in Russia in 1905 does not sound like something that would cross cultural barriers. Yet Fiddler on the Roof has been performed all over the world during the 55 years since its debut, connecting with audiences regardless of race, religion or language. The documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles looks at the creation of the play, with an emphasis on the surprising universality of the material. It is an informative and generally entertaining doc, even if it repeats itself a little too much. You will not find anything negative here; it is the cinematic equivalent to a thank you letter to those responsible for its subject’s existence.
Fiddler is 93 minutes (not including the end credits) of praise. That is not my favorite documentary approach. However, the message, that this very specific story has touched so many people, gives it a direction that adds depth to this origin story. It takes viewers from the initial idea to adapt Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the milkman into a musical through to its own Hollywood adaptation. There is plenty of footage of various productions of the show and interviews with people who have worked on at least one staging of it. A lot of attention is paid to the songs, both the lyrics and choreography, as a way of analyzing their effect on audiences. It works, despite the conclusion essentially being “these speak to so many because they are brilliant.”
Its best asset is its footage from different productions of Fiddler on the Roof. The interviews are alright (some give real insight, others are only enthusiastic love), but cutting between performances hammers home the point the movie is trying to make much more successfully than when it just tells us. Hearing someone breakdown “If I Were a Rich Man” or “Matchmaker,” then seeing clips of that same song being performed on Broadway, in the movie, in Yiddish, in Japanese, etc., is effective in explaining its lasting appeal. The story of Fiddler on the Roof can resonate with anybody, even if its setting is unfamiliar to most. I do believe the more specific something is, the more universal it is. Nothing gets that across better than the fact that the story of an Orthodox Jewish milkman and his family in 1905 Russia is still told today, and not just by Jews.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a breezily enjoyable trip to 1960s Broadway that will be very engaging to fans of its subject, or someone like me who fondly remembers listening to the songs while growing up. It has enough intriguing behind the scenes tidbits and cool stories to make it worth a watch. Its true value comes from what it has to say about the connectivity of art. There are not a lot of explicitly Jewish stories in popular culture. Though Fiddler on the Roof is about certain kinds of people during a particular time, what it has to say about bigotry, faith and gender roles has been able to transcend its characters’ situations. Similar to the play it celebrates, Fiddler allows everyone to appreciate this achievement, no matter their religion.
3¼ out of 5
Directed by Max Lewkowicz
Written by Max Lewkowicz and Valerie Thomas