‘Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen’ Film Review: The Making of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ 50 Years Later

Daniel Raim tracks the miracle of miracles that turned the Broadway hit into a film that remains one of the screen’s greatest musical adaptations

Fiddlers Journey to the Big Screen
Kino Lorber/Zeitgeist

One of the more unlikely stage-and-screen box office smashes in musical history, “Fiddler on the Roof” — based on stories of shtetl life in Tsarist Russia by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, and turned by writer Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and composer Jerry Bock into a song-filled saga about a poor milkman with five unmarried daughters and an aversion to change — defied conventional wisdom about whose stories could be universal.

It helps, of course, when your score is a treasure trove: “Tradition,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” “To Life,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” are all-timers.

We’ve already gotten one adoring film about the original Broadway show’s legacy, 2019’s “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles,” and now we have a second: Daniel Raim’s warm, engaging “Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen.” As its title makes clear, the documentary is about the beloved movie version directed by Norman Jewison, which became the highest-grossing American film of 1971, was nominated for eight Oscars (winning three) and has maintained its reputation as a classic as few other movie versions of cherished musicals have.

Raim already has experience turning movie history into behind-the-scenes catnip with his warm portrait of unsung creativity, “Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story.” This time, although nobody would argue that many unsung talents were involved in “Fiddler,” he zeroes in for his throughline portrait on Jewison, a famously conscientious filmmaker whose dedication, craft, activism and compassion ensured that a hit show (for a time the longest-running Broadway musical) got the cinematic treatment it deserved.

That the Canadian-born Jewison wasn’t Jewish — although he’d gotten beaten up as a kid as if he had been, and says he always wanted to be Jewish — didn’t matter to United Artists chairman Arthur Krim. What mattered were the director’s fast-growing résumé of well-received hits (“The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” “In the Heat of the Night”) and a belief this Hollywood-savvy director would know how to broaden the show’s appeal for movie audiences.

The irony is that Jewison, a lively interviewee throughout, would do all he could to entrench the story, performances and look of the film in a location-centric, religious and cultural authenticity far removed from Broadway theatricality. Everything flowed from that approach: young Israeli actor Chaim Topol was cast as Tevye to suggest more Old World heft over the New York stylings of the part’s originator, Zero Mostel; violin superstar Isaac Stern was recruited to record the fiddler’s aching solos (written by score adapter John Williams); Jewison chose rural Zagreb, Yugoslavia to shoot in, and production designer Robert Boyle drew on Roman Vishniac’s photographs of Jewish culture to create sets thick with the atmosphere of a tight-knit, poor community lost to history, specifically to the violence of the pogroms, which Jewison wanted to show (as much as he could for a general-audiences entertainment).

Of course, it’s all the creative details and anecdotes — offered up by Raim’s interviewees (which include Topol, Boyle, Harnick, and Williams) and, occasionally, through the eccentric narration of Jeff Goldblum — that will appeal most to both the show’s fans and movie buffs, along with snippets of on-set footage from the production.

Though Raim filmed all three actresses who played Tevye’s eldest daughters, Rosalind Harris (who played Tzeitel) proves the most entertaining, offering up a hilarious story about one attempt at period authenticity that didn’t fly. How cinematographer Oswald Morris achieved his evocatively earth-toned Oscar-winning images is another choice filmmaking nugget. And Jewison’s post-completion, what-will-they-think encounters with Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion are priceless.

For a tale that reminds us, as film critic Kenneth Turan says on camera, “Nothing is permanent,” the endurance of “Fiddler on the Roof” is a heartening exception, even as it shows its age and represents a more innocent time regarding the mining of cultures. It’s been so resonant a work of popular art about heritage, values and love (it’s been performed in dozens of countries, including Japan) that one can forget it grew out of a desire to tell a human story as honestly, tunefully and entertainingly as possible.

And while it may have started as a spellbinding evening of theater, what Raim’s unfussy, handsomely mounted documentary reinforces is that film is its own spiritually transporting medium, with its own risks and rewards, and its own ability to turn the enjoyment of art into — what else? — tradition!

“Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen” opens in NYC April 29 and LA May 6.