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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: How 'Fiddler' leapt from roof to big...

Screen Grabs: How ‘Fiddler’ leapt from roof to big screen

Plus: A brand new 'Firestarter,' eye-opening 'Castro's Spies,' a special appearance 'Sleepaway Camp,' more movies

Though overshadowed by The Godfather’s near-simultaneous 50th anniversary, the recent passing of that same landmark by Bob Fosse’s Cabaret was a reasonably big deal, marked by (among other things) Liza on the Oscars and some revival screenings (including the Roxie Tue/17). Cabaret had later high-profile stage revivals, and its legacy seemed to extend into the various incarnations of Chicago, which now provides most people’s notion of the Bob Fosse aesthetic the prior film introduced to popular culture.

But for all the very “adult” musical Cabaret’s Oscar wins (eight!) and lasting fame, a G-rated musical released a few months before was, in fact, a much bigger hit—despite its comparatively paltry Oscar haul of three (and all in “minor” categories, too). Indeed, late 1971 release Fiddler on the Roof would be the last hugely successful movie musical until 1978’s Grease, a sort of parting hurrah for the genre as it staggered to a dinosaur graveyard dug by a long series of expensive flops attempting to recapture The Sound of Music’s enormous success.

As in so many things, Fiddler was an outlier: It was long (three full hours), had no name stars, was feared—like the Broadway show before it—to have insufficient “Gentile appeal,” and, well… was about singing, suffering Jewish peasants in 1905 rural Russia. Its terrific popularity nonetheless did absolutely zilch to refresh audience tastes for other musicals, as the next couple years’ costly bombs (Man of La Mancha, Lost Horizon, Mame) proved.

Of course, those movies also just weren’t good. Fiddler was very good—even a half-century later, it seems better than you’d expect, or even than it needed to be. Very little about it has dated. Director Norman Jewison’s decision to go for more-or-less “location-shot” realism (which would reap more mixed rewards when he next tackled Jesus Christ Superstar) results in an usually grounded film that offers the pleasures of musical comedy, but is never “theatrical,” and has a naturalistic grasp on historical tragedy that honors Sholom Aleichem’s source material.

The documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, which opens at the Roxie this Fri/20, explains the unusually harmonious (by all accounts) process that led to this unusually simpatico film translation of a stage entity—one that was, for some time, the longest-running show in Broadway history. There were people who thought it couldn’t possibly be done without Zero Mostel, who’d originated the musical role in 1964. Thank god Jewison disagreed, deciding that bigger-than-life star was “too American, doing everything for laughs.” He needed a younger, sexier, less hammy, more “universal” Tevye the Dairyman, finding him in Topol, an Israeli actor found already playing the part in London.

Other principal characters were likewise cast not for marquee value but because they felt right to the director. The performers recruited mostly from theater included not a single major star-in-the-making, unless you count Paul Michael Glaser (who’d comprise the first half of TV cop duo Starsky and Hutch four years later), playing one of the suitors to Tevye’s three older daughters. The latter trio—Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small—are all interviewed here, still stunned decades later at their good fortune—not just the career break, but the sympathetic and supportive atmosphere Jewison created on-set.

A fair chunk of Daniel Rain’s documentary is about him, not least the fact that he isn’t a Jew, but has spent his entire life being mistaken for (and pining to be) one. Co-written by former SF Examiner critic Michael Sragow, Journey has the now nearly 100-year-old, retired but still spry director as its principal interviewee, alongside fellow surviving collaborators Topol, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and orchestrator John Williams, plus critic Kenneth Turan. Jeff Goldblum narrates.

There are no great revelations here, beyond the fact that once he’d gotten the job, Jewison (a TV-trained Canadian expat already at the top of the ladder due to such hits as In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair) was petitioned by such unlikely would-be Tevyes as Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra. Also, one of the daughters feared she wouldn’t be cast because she’d performed in Broadway’s “X-rated” revue “Oh! Calcutta!”

But most of the documentary satisfies less in a gossipy or conflict-driven way than as a reassuring testament to the fact that some beloved movies apparently were as enjoyable to make as they are to watch. Since it could not be shot in Russia during the Cold War, a suitably poor, ageless-looking village was found in Yugoslavia, whose Communist regime was liberal enough to encourage international film productions (and their big wallets). Some scenes were shot on soundstages in England’s Pinewood Studios, mostly so dancers could perform under optimal conditions.

This movie feels like an elongated making-of DVD extra (something Raim has made a lot of in recent years), and those seeking more insight into the general Fiddler on the Roof phenomenon are better off with Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, a different documentary released three years ago. But Journey is a pleasing valentine to a movie that seems to have buried itself in the collective consciousness of many, Jewish or not. I have no idea when I last saw the ’71 film (quite possibly not since the 1970s), yet it all came back as if permanently stored in the brain.

Also, there’s a particular poignancy to this screen incarnation’s achievement now. Unlike the more stylized, whimsical stage version, it actually portrayed the terrifying anti-Semitic pogrom that forces these characters from their homes and communities. While Anatevka is a fictional village, it is located somewhere in the west of the erstwhile Russian Empire—an area that included much of modern-day Ukraine, as well as other nations currently under military threat by Putin. Fiddler on the Roof famously ends with an exodus of refugees, and unfortunately that is one story element that never seems to lose its relevance.

Co-presented by the Jewish Film Institute, Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is currently scheduled at the Roxie Fri/20-Tue/23, though additional shows may be added. It also opens Fri/20 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Other new films this week:

Castro’s Spies
A very different kind of documentary is Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon’s look at “The Cuban Five,” a quintet of intelligence agents who were convicted of espionage in 1998. OK, spying is spying—every nation does it, and when caught, there are consequences. But these men were, by all accounts, sent to the US not to spy on our government, but on Cuban-American groups in south Florida that had plotted and would continue to plot overthrow of Castro’s regime. This movie (which includes facetime with those groups’ representatives) is pretty clear about which side it’s on. But then unless you’re simply a rabid anti-Communist, it’s hard to defend the other side.

After a short history of Cuba before and after the revolution, we’re introduced to the men eventually recruited in Havana to infiltrate Miami-centered anti-Castro forces. All were Cuban Secret Service officers who had to leave wives and children behind to assume new identities, excepting one pilot who made headlines under his own name by stealing a plane to fly to “freedom and democracy.” (His wife eventually figured out he hadn’t actually abandoned her, but was performing a covert operation.) Their wading into variably paramilitaristic or ostensibly rescue-focused organizations was not just spying for spying’s sake.

Long-standing US governmental hostility towards post-Batista Cuba meant a blind eye was turned towards those groups’ activities, some of which can be classified as terroristic. Their like was behind not just the disastrous attempted Bay of Pigs invasion, but the 1976 downing of a Cubana Airlines flight that killed all 73 onboard, then series of bombs targeting a Havana tourist industry revived to shore up an economy devastated by the American trade embargo.

This isn’t James Bond or even Jason Bourne stuff—the “Five” were doing espionage on the cheap, the annual budget for their entire operation under $50,000. Castro’s Spies heightens that underdog tenor by using footage from a cheesy-looking popular Cuban TV show of yesteryear, whose amply mustachio’d hero infiltrates the CIA. The fate of the real-life quintet was harsh, up until an Obama-era political prisoner exchange. It’s an engrossing tale underlining what a friend’s sister (who’s big in politics there) once told me: Miami is many things, but what it has the most of is corruption.

It may be hot, hot, hot in Miami, but it’ll get hotter still once you’ve pissed off the grade-school heroine of this Stephen King story, born with the (sometimes uncontrollable) ability to make people or things burst into flame. The 1980 novel was already made into a movie once, four years after publication. That version, starring little Drew Barrymore fresh outta E.T., was among neither the best or worst of the era’s many King adaptations—but its mediocrity left lots of room for improvement.

Hence we’ve got a new one from director Keith Thomas, whose prior feature The Vigil (released just last year after a pre-COVID festival premiere) was a modest but effectively creepy tale of a man attempting to keep a malevolent spirit at bay. It had a scant plot and basically one humble location, but a lot of atmosphere—precisely the opposite of Firestarter, whose plotty, pyrotechnical progress seems beyond Thomas’ management skills. Zac Efron (introduced shirtless, because it’s Zac Efron) and Sydney Lemmon play a couple who were chosen for a sinister government “experiment” because of their paranormal abilities, and now have a child (Ryan Keira Armstrong as Charlie) they’re trying to keep safe from the same evil forces. But when picked-on Charlie’s fiery temper exposes the furtive family to their pursuers, dad and daughter must go on the run.

This first big-screen King adaptation since 2019’s Doctor Sleep—a film that really deserved more love than it got—is by contrast a complete fizzle. It’s never convincing, frightening, or stylish, yet not bad enough to be fun, either. Aside from Lemmon (who isn’t around long), the casting is uninspired, the conflicts cardboard, and the FX less than awesome. Maybe Firestarter just resists the medium: It’s hard to make a little girl scary. (Inevitably, Charlie starts seeming merely bratty instead.) But this movie doesn’t seem to believe in its own material—it’s flat in a way that suggests the air left the balloon before anyone even said “Action!” It’s now playing theaters, in addition to streaming on Peacock.

Sleepaway Camp with Felissa Rose
When the prior Firestarter came out, it was a prestige (if not particularly well-received) major-studio entry amidst a horror boom mostly ruled by lower-budgeted independent films like this 1983 slasher by writer-director Robert Hiltzik—who, despite its considerable commercial success and eventual cult following, nevermade another film. (At least not until 2003’s Return to Sleepaway Camp… which, like the preceding three sequels he had nothing to do with, is not worth further mention.)

One of many obvious Friday the 13th cash-ins being made at the time, Sleepaway has odd, introverted tweenager Angela (Felissa Rose) dispatched to Camp Arawak for the summer with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Angela is easy pickings for bullies, but soon those bullies start turning up dead, murdered in various grotesque ways. The revelation of the killer’s identity does not come as a huge surprise. Still, that killer is indeed packin’ a big surprise for the viewer, one that seems almost too over-the-top to take serious offense at—though some LBGTQ+ advocates have strongly disagreed.

Irregardless, Sleepaway Camp survives as the kind of not-exactly-“good” movie that is somehow kinda great, memorable and eccentric within a formulaic genre context. It made a career scream queen out of juvenile actor Rose, who’s been in some interesting indies since (particularly Dante Tomaselli’s surreal nightmares Horror and Satan’s Playground) as well as a lot of dross. She will appear at the Balboa this Wed/18 and Thurs/19 for a revival screening (more info here) that will feature her live commentary, as well as audience Q&A and photo opps. (She will, we are told, duly be dressed “as Angela.”)

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