There would be no film version of Fiddler on the Roof without the Broadway show. How cool is it, though, that we live in a world where, instead of trying to cram a discussion of the film and show into one documentary, there are two documentaries that split the honors. While Max Lewkowicz’s Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (2019) focuses on Fiddler’s theatrical roots (the musical premiered in 1964). Daniel Raim’s Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen (2022) is about Norman Jewison’s film adaptation, which came out in 1971 and starred Topol in the lead role as Tevye.
Fiddler fans are definitely Raim’s target audience, so if you’re wondering whether you should watch Fiddler first, the answer is “yes” (and that goes for always – please see Fiddler on the Roof).
Based on Sholem Aleichem’s short story collection, Tevye’s Daughters, this would be the first revelation I had while watching Raim’s documentary – that Fiddler on the Roof didn’t originate as a musical. The revelations keep coming, though, and as someone who grew up on Fiddler on the Roof, it is a little strange to pull back the curtain and spoil some of the movie magic, like realizing the fiddler in the film (Tutte Lemkow) wasn’t really playing the violin. Isaac Stern was playing during the opening titles, so it’s not like the truth is disappointing, but it is a little like finding out about Santa Claus.
That’s how you know Raim’s documentary is working, though – when you come away knowing more than you did going in. Part of that comes from Raim’s respect for the key players who worked behind the scenes, like conductor and musical director, John Williams, and cinematographer, Oswald Morris.
Raim’s documentary isn’t without a critical eye either. He includes some different opinions on the casting of Tevye and whether Topol was the right choice for the film. Jewison’s career before Fiddler is discussed, along with Jewison being a goy and wanting to make a film version of Fiddler that would have universal appeal. It’s a conversation that’s especially interesting to have, in light of the Yiddish version of Fiddler returning this fall off-Broadway.
One thing that’s great about Raim’s documentaries is you’re never left floundering or wondering who’s talking or how to spell someone’s name, so you can look them up later. Everything is clearly labeled and dated, like Raim’s interviews with Jewison, which took place over multiple years. For those wondering why that is, there’s a little sheet of paper that comes with the Blu-Ray on which Raim includes a director’s statement. It’s only a little sheet of paper but it’s one of the reasons why buying the Blu-Ray is worth it. There’s so much helpful context for how this documentary came together.
Robert Boyle, who was the production designer on Fiddler, was Raim’s professor in college and it was while making a documentary about him that Raim met Jewison. While brings us to the second cool thing about Raim’s documentaries: they build on each other. Raim’s documentary about Boyle became the Oscar-nominated short, “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” and it’s included as a bonus feature on this Blu-Ray. While the section about Boyle’s work on Fiddler overlaps with Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, there’s also content about Boyle’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. The best part, though, is when Boyle revisits some of the locations for The Birds with Harold Michaelson, half of the couple from Raim’s Harold and Lillian. It’s like Raim is creating his own, shared documentary universe and, if you love Hollywood history, it’s impossible to resist.
Of the cast, Raim mostly focuses on Topol and the three actresses who played Tevye’s eldest daughters – Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, and Neva Small. The interviews with the daughters are brand new – shot in 2021. Norma Crane (who played Golda) and Leonard Frey (who played the “poor tailor,” Motel) aren’t mentioned much, but there are tributes to them in the bonus feature section that were assumedly cut for time (if disappointingly short). Longer cuts of the interviews with Williams, Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler’s lyricist), and Topol make up the final bonus features, along with a clip from Harold and Lillian of Lillian talking about doing research on the girls’ underwear for the song, “Matchmaker.”
There’s a reason Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof is a classic, and Raim’s documentary does its subject justice. Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films.