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Review: A rich tribute to a remarkable film, ‘Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen’ is a gem

A movie director points as the cast watches on the set of "Fiddler on the Roof.”
Director Norman Jewison, pointing, and star Topol, holding hat, on the set of “Fiddler on the Roof,” from the documentary “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.”
(Zeitgeist Films / Kino Lorber)
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The documentary “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” is as wondrous, buoyant and heartwarming as the film it celebrates. This compact but richly detailed look back at producer-director Norman Jewison’s 1971 feature version of the beloved stage musical “Fiddler on the Roof” should captivate its target audience, as well as any movie lovers who enjoy seeing how the kishke is made.

Director-producer-editor Daniel Raim, who also co-wrote with Michael Sragow, has assembled a thoroughly entertaining and nicely dimensional recount of how the complex, high-profile adaptation came together with Jewison, hot off such film successes as “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming”; 1968’s best picture Oscar winner “In the Heat of the Night”; and “The Thomas Crown Affair” (plus a background in musical television), at the helm.

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Raim is blessed with a lively, moving and insightful collection of interviews — shot at various points between 2000 and 2021 — with such “Fiddler” players as the visionary Jewison; Topol, who starred as poor Jewish milkman Tevye; co-stars Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh and Neva Small (they played Tevye’s daughters, Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava, respectively); conductor and arranger John Williams; production designer Robert F. Boyle; and lyricist Sheldon Harnick (his sweet vocal rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset” is a high point). Former Times film critic and Yiddish Book Center board member Kenneth Turan smartly weighs in as well.

The doc is, at heart, a much-deserved love letter to the long and socially conscious career of the Toronto-born Jewison, a seven-time Oscar nominee (three times as director, including for “Fiddler”) and recipient of the academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1999. He shares a wealth of fascinating and amusing stories about the casting, preproduction, production and release of “Fiddler” (Frank Sinatra wanted to play Tevye! Golda Meir got teary during the Jerusalem premiere!), as well as the common misperception that, because of his surname, Jewison must be Jewish. (He’s Protestant Christian but a strong ally and advocate of Judaism.)

A brief history of the “Fiddler” stage production, vibrant behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s shoot in the former Yugoslavia and at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios, rousing clips from the completed movie, and well-matched narration by actor Jeff Goldblum round out this memorable portrait.

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'Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Starts May 5, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; starts May 6, Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

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