Take 3: Fiddler on the Roof Review

As I write this review, Rebecca, from Taking Up Room, is hosting the John Williams Blogathon! When signing up for this event, I knew John’s high-profile projects were going to be some of the most popular selections among fellow participants. Therefore, I decided to go off the beaten path by choosing a title that wasn’t associated with a franchise. As I scrolled through John’s filmography on IMDB, I discovered he conducted the music in the 1971 musical, Fiddler on the Roof. With this newfound knowledge, I chose that film to review for Rebecca’s blogathon! Prior to this event, I had seen about half of this film. I have also reviewed very few films revolving around Jewish stories. In fact, the only movies including Jewish stories and/or characters I have written about so far is Holiday Date and The Lost Child. But will I enjoy Fiddler on the Roof like I enjoyed the 2019 Hallmark Channel film or will I think it is just fine like the 2000 Hallmark Hall of Fame production? As a composer starts his or her cue for their orchestra, it’s time for this review to begin!

Fiddler on the Roof poster created by
The Mirisch Production Company and United Artists

Things I liked about the film:

The acting: Fiddler on the Roof is a film with an ensemble cast. Despite its large size, the film’s cast was, as a whole, solid! But within this ensemble, there were some performances that really stood out to me. The most notable one came from Topol! Throughout the movie, Topol presented a versatile portrayal of his character, Tevye. This versatility allowed Tevye to be seen as a realistic individual who is trying to make sense of the changes taking place in his world. At several points in the story, Tevye speaks with God and contemplates his faith. Tevye’s emotions matched whatever dilemma he faced. When one of his daughters comes to him with serious news, Tevye is angry and frustrated. As he receives the aforementioned news, Tevye questions how far he’s willing to go for his faith, talking through the situation while genuine emotion finds a place in his voice, facial expressions, and body language. Moments like the one I described show a sincerity that gave Tevye the opportunity to be Fiddler on the Roof’s “every man”!

Motel is a tailor from Tevye’s village. Portrayed by Leonard Frey, Motel wants to marry Tevye’s oldest daughter, but lacks the confidence to approach Tevye with this proposal. Through a consistent performance, the audience can watch Motel grow from a timid tailor to a man who genuinely believes in himself and his abilities. Having Tzeitel as Motel’s inspiration certainly helped his case. Tzeitel is Tevye’s oldest daughter, who is portrayed by Rosalind Harris. She worries about who she will end up marrying in the near future. Despite this, Rosalind gave a performance that was well-rounded and enjoyable to watch! When Motel tells Tevye about his marriage plans, the confidence he once lacked steadily grows within his voice. His facial expressions become stronger with each statement toward Tevye, finding the words Motel had suppressed for too long. Meanwhile, Tzeitel appropriately reacts to this discussion, expressions of worry and joy being displayed on her face. This scene shows how the acting abilities of both Leonard and Rosalind work well together!

The musical numbers: When thinking about music composed by John Williams, pieces of music that make any scene feel grand and larger-than-life come to mind. The music in Fiddler on the Roof certainly accomplished this, as John’s contributions to the film elaborate on a scene’s large scale! One of these songs is “Tradition”, which can be heard at the beginning of the movie. This song highlights how the traditions of the Jewish community of Anatevka affected every member, with each role and its significance explained through the song’s lyrics. Bold, orchestral melodies accompany these lyrics, as an excited greeting to the film’s incoming audience. Looking beyond the music, the musical numbers themselves were well-choreographed and fit within the context of the story! A musical number I really enjoyed seeing was “Tevye’s Dream”! In this scene, Tevye is recounting a dream he had regarding Tzeitel’s marriage prospects. Tevye and his wife, Golde, find themselves in a graveyard that boasts a gray hue. Headstones of decreased villagers surround the graveyard, with these decreased villagers appearing as the scene progresses. Though the musical number itself is very fantastical compared to the film’s other numbers, its uniqueness in presentation allows “Tevye’s Dream” to stand out and be memorable!

The incorporation of Jewish faith/culture: As I previously mentioned, Anatevka is a small village that hosts a Jewish community. Throughout Fiddler on the Roof, aspects of the Jewish faith/culture are incorporated not only into the film’s story, but into the songs and musical numbers as well. When talking about these musical numbers in the previous paragraph, I brought up the song, “Tradition”, and how it highlights some of the traditions among the villagers in Anatevka. At the beginning of the film, Tevye explains directly to the audience how he and other members of the community wear a special garment related to prayer. During a wedding ceremony, the bride and groom are lifted on chairs by wedding guests. This action is part of a dance called the Horah, which is typically performed at Jewish special occasions, such as weddings. The Horah was seamlessly woven into a larger musical number called “Wedding Celebration”, which also featured a group of bottle dancers. The incorporation of Jewish faith/culture gave the movie its own unique identity. It also provides an introduction to Jewish customs and traditions.

The John Williams Blogathon banner created by Rebecca, from Taking Up Room

What I didn’t like about the film:

No answers about The Fiddler: I have mentioned before how a film’s title can serve as a promise to its respective audience. The title can also let the audience know what to expect. This 1971 film is called Fiddler on the Roof. Yet the audience never learns more about the titular character, as he only appears in a handful of scenes. While watching this movie, I noticed how the Fiddler wore bright clothes compared to the villagers and even those from imperial Russia. Because of this, it caused me to speculate what role the Fiddler had within the overall story. Was he a spirit meant to guide Tevye through life or simply a peculiar individual? These are just two of the questions I’ll probably never get answers to.

An inconsistent conflict: When I learned this movie took place during imperial Russia, I expected the overarching conflict to revolve around the fall of the Romanov family. However, the overarching conflict was about how the government wanted the villagers to evacuate from Anatevka, for reasons the script never shared. This conflict complimented the film’s theme of change. But the story focused on this conflict in the film’s second half, with the conflict having a limited presence in its first half. I know this creative decision was meant to emphasize the tonal change within the story. I just wish it had a more consistent presence in the movie.

A limited inclusion of a broken fourth wall: At the beginning of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye talks directly to the audience about his village, the people who live there, and the titular Fiddler. Because broken fourth walls are not common in musicals, I was looking forward to seeing the story told from Tevye’s perspective and watching the movie presented in a creative way. But for the rest of the film, Tevye didn’t break the fourth wall. I found this as such a missed opportunity, because, as I already said, broken fourth walls are not often found in musicals. While Fiddler on the Roof is a unique musical, Tevye consistently breaking the fourth wall could have added more uniqueness.

Hanukkah mehorah image created by Freepik at freepik.com. <a href=’https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/mehorah-with-flaming-candles_3299423.htm’>Designed by Freepik</a>. <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/free-photos-vectors/background”>Background image created by Freepik</a>. Image found at freepik.com.

My overall impression:

Fiddler on the Roof is a little over three hours. Therefore, you need to set aside time if you’re interested in watching this film. Despite the longer run-time, Fiddler on the Roof is a good movie! Almost every year, I come across that one musical that pleasantly stood out and captivated me. While it’s way too early to say whether this 1971 title will end up as one of the best movies I saw this year, it definitely captivated me, as I found it enjoyable! John Williams’ musical contributions provided some of the fabric of the story’s cinematic quilt, accompanied by well-choreographed and entertaining numbers. The ensemble cast binds these pieces of fabric with a strong thread, holding each scene together with solid acting performances. Incorporations of the Jewish faith/culture help the overall production gain a unique identity, asking questions and discussing topics that wouldn’t typically be found in a musical. Combining all these elements together, Fiddler on the Roof is a special project not just in the world of cinema, but also among musicals! With that, I’d say John Williams is a special composer. To those who don’t pay attention to the musical aspect of a given film, one might wonder how John is different from any other composer. But when you look at his body of cinematic work and the scores associated with those works, maybe that is more than enough to set him apart.

Overall score: 7.9 out of 10

Have you seen Fiddler on the Roof? Which John Williams composed film do you enjoy watching? Please tell me in the comment section!

Have fun at the movies!

Sally Silverscreen

11 thoughts on “Take 3: Fiddler on the Roof Review

  1. Pingback: The John Williams Blogathon Has Arrived – Taking Up Room

  2. Hey Sally,

    Sorry it took so long for me to read your review!

    Fiddler is my all time favorite Musical and I have seen it countless times despite the 3 hour length that for me flies by.

    Let me try and answer some of ur questions that u brought up.

    The Fiddler is actually not a real character in the story, but a metaphor for the way that Jews must live their lives in a precarious way because we live in two worlds, the modern world and the world according to our faith. We need to find the right balance between the two, which is never easy to do.

    The story takes place a few decades before the fall of the Romanov family and is all about the Pogroms against the Jews in Russia in the late 19th Century (1890’s or so).

    The Jews were always seen as outsiders in Russia (and in many other places) and anti-semitism instigated by the Czar and other officials, led to them issuing orders to disrupt Jewish events and cause havoc every few months or so for not real reason besides the fact that they hated the Jews.

    John Williams was responsible for the musical arrangements here, but the songs were all written for the stage play which came out about a decade beforehand.

    Regarding Tevye breaking the 4th wall, he does so throughout the film (not just in the beginning) and many of his conversations with God double for a discussion with the audience.

    Hope these answers shed some light for you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for checking out my review, MovieRob! I appreciate your insight about ‘Fiddler on the Roof’! Looking back on the film, I can now see how the prayers are breaking the fourth wall. With that said, it is a creative way to use this particular story-telling element. Thanks again for sharing the historical context of the movie!

      Liked by 1 person

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