Max Lewkowicz directs a heartfelt but thin documentary about the creation of a timeless Broadway classic.
Since it first opened on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof unstuck itself in time. It started as an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters, which, upon its release in 1894, was constructed as taking place in the turn of the 20th century, but what about 70 years later? Suddenly, what was current became retrospective, timeless. Joseph Stein wrote the book, Jerry Bock the music, and Sheldon Narnick the lyrics. Its period shifted to decades past while its motific influences, ranging from Mark Chagall to real-life unrest, stayed in the now.
Funnily enough, director Max Lewkowicz isn’t as tuned in to the temporality as he might first appear. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles isn’t necessarily about the play’s origins or its meanings. It also isn’t about its legacy—at least not as much as is reinforcing what fans may already know. It’s about how and why it endures through so many iterations regardless of country or creed, and with an endless supply of speakers giving their interpretations, their arguments range from dense and cogent to downright obvious. As a result, so do the movie’s.
Let author and actor Fran Lebowitz put it one way early on. “Nostalgia is a very dangerous thing in a culture,” she says towards the beginning. From that point on comes an underlying contradiction to Lewkowicz’s piece: for every scholar who talks about the social implications of Fiddler and the resilience that birthed it, there’s one that spells out baseline interpretations of the text. For every analysis of how ‘60s feminism and civil rights activism informed its success, there’s an actor waxing about how easy the play is to love or defining the inciting incident.
Take, for example, the ways that Lewkowicz sifts through his content. With an uneven attention to pace or structure, he barrels headfirst into some truly insightful arguments. Then he hangs on harshly mixed talking heads, most of which prevent archive footage and interviews from working hand-in-hand. They work separately but not together, at times putting the director at the mercy of those he’s interviewed instead of letting him forge his own argument.
In fact, A Miracle of Miracles plays like a skeleton of a documentary. The bones are neatly laid out, but there isn’t enough meat to hold its core together. It works best when tissue isn’t needed at all. Some sequences just so happen to cover periods in which lots of artistic progress came to be in just a matter of years (e.g. West Side Story in ’61 and Fiddler’s debut in ’64, both led by Jerry Robbins’s blocking and choreography). At those points, it flows quite well.
At others, it feels like Lewkowicz is running to catch up with his own narrative, trying to thread the needle between his subjects’ analyses and a more specific sense of time. It’s unfortunate that those interviewed are so hit and miss, then. It’s often actors who give textbook approaches to the material, explaining act breaks and characters’ psychologies instead of placing Fiddler in a larger context. It’s the historians and scholars, however, who buoy the content with their knowledge, which falls much more in line with the film’s contiguous approach.
A Miracle of Miracles plays like a skeleton of a documentary.
By the time A Miracle of Miracles reaches its final 20 minutes, its takeaways veer on repetition. Is it about a specific time and place? Or is it unstuck in time, applicable to just about everyone? What about how differences relate through sheer loneliness, about the nuance and ethics of having actors of different races and ethnicities perform such a specific play? Hell, if universality is the basis of Lewkowicz’s film, then it could have done with some shortening and restructuring to streamline its intent. It’s a mosaic with just too much space between the tiles.
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is in select theaters now.