Skip to main content

Review: Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen highlights a classic

In 1971, a film was released that was both a box office smash (it was the top grosser that year) and a critical hit, garnering 8 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who was very selective about the films she liked, praised the movie, calling it one of the most “powerful” films she had ever seen.

While one might immediately think of The French Connection or A Clockwork Orange, the film in question is actually Fiddler on the Roof, an adaptation of the hit stage musical chronicling a Jewish family in Ukraine as they encounter personal, political, and societal change at the turn of the 20th century. While the musical is still revived on stages around the world, the movie itself seems taken for granted, and the breezy and detailed documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen makes a convincing case that the film and its director, Norman Jewison, are worth a second look.

A miracle of miracles

Norman Jewison directs a chorus of men in Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The director Daniel Raim has a clear love for the film, and it’s this passion — combined with a skillful use of archival interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and new footage of the surviving cast and crew — that makes the whole enterprise both entertaining and informative. It doesn’t hurt that Raim uses Jeff Goldblum as the chief narrator who guides the audience along through Fiddler‘s origins on the stage to its somewhat rocky road to the big-screen.

You don’t have to be a Fiddler fan to enjoy some of the trivia shared by Raim. For instance, did you know that the lead role of Tevye (played by Chaim Topol in the film) was almost embodied by the distinctly Italian, and goyish, Frank Sinatra? Or that Jewison went against all popular opinion and refused to cast original Broadway star Zero Mostel because he was too big of a star and too American for moviegoing audiences to buy him as a struggling Russian Jew? How about the anecdote shared by the long deceased cinematographer Oswald Morris, who put silk stockings over the camera lens to achieve the film’s unique look? (Morris won an Oscar for his efforts). Even if you do know these facts, it’s fun re-discovering them as Raim employs numerous talking heads, chief among them Jewison himself, to relay their personal experiences in bringing Fiddler to life.

Sunrise, sunset

Norman Jewison directs actors in Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Some standout interviews include the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters in the film: Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel), Michele Marsh (Hodel), and Neva Small (Chava). What’s particularly poignant about each of them is that Fiddler was both their breakthrough movie and the highpoint of their careers. Their shared experience clearly meant a lot to them, and their recollections add an emotional undercurrent that gives depth and weight to the documentary.

Another highlight is Star Wars composer John Williams, who shares his recollection of creating the film’s score early on in his career. In a fascinating sequence, he details how Jewison interpreted the film’s music for the screen, setting up individual shots to sync up and be in tune with the film’s music. Raim shows this by intercutting Williams with the “If I Were a Rich Man” number, which brilliantly reveals the mastery of both Williams and Jewison in translating a potentially static song and breathing life in it on a visual medium. It’s one of many passages that makes the convincing case that Fiddler is one of the all-time great movie musicals — not just because of the way it sounds, but also due to the way it moves onscreen.

To life (and Norman Jewison)


In the process of spotlighting the 1971 film adaptation and giving it its fair due, Fiddler’s Journey also highlights the director of the film himself: Norman Jewison. Seen in both archival footage and new interviews conducted for this documentary, Jewison comes across as calm, intelligent, and compassionate. He’s the rare filmmaker who worked and excelled in almost every genre, from dystopian sci-fi (Rollerball) to satire (The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming) to romantic comedy (Moonstruck), and it’s astonishing to find out in the doc that Fiddler was his first musical.

At the end of the film, when we see Jewison joking with the cast and crew on location, a moving portrait emerges of an artist — one of the last of a generation — who adapted a uniquely Jewish work of art, even though Jewison himself was not raised in the faith. What made this Canadian gentile the right person to bring Fiddler on the Roof to life is a question asked and quietly answered in Raim’s documentary, which convinces us to not only appreciate the cultural and artistic importance of Tevye and his family but also admire the man who brought it to life so vividly 50 years ago.

Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is out now in theaters.

Editors' Recommendations

Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
Lyon vs PSG live stream: Can you watch for free?
A soccer field.

French juggernauts Paris Saint-Germain look to end a two-year drought at the Coupe de France when they take on Lyon in the final today at Stade Pierre-Mauroy. A win for PSG would extend their record to 15 French Cup titles, while Lyon--who haven't won since 2012--are seeking their sixth title in club history.

The match is starting very soon, at 3:00 p.m. ET. If you're in the United States and want to watch, it will be televised on Fox Soccer Plus and Fox Deportes, but we've also found some different ways you can watch a live stream of the match for free.
Watch the Lyon vs PSG Live Stream on Fubo

Read more
From Mad Max to Furiosa: Every George Miller movie, ranked
Lord Humungous in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

Anya Taylor-Joy in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga Warner Bros.
Australian director George Miller is one of the great cinematic visionaries of his generation. Once a medical student taking film classes on the side, Miller turned his morbid fascination with car accidents into a cult-classic action film, which in turn gave birth to one of cinema’s most exciting and intriguing worlds.
Not content to make bombastic postapocalyptic chase movies forever, Miller then tried his hand at raunchy comedy, dour adult drama, and wholesome family entertainment in both live action and animation. When he returned to his chrome-plated world of gas-guzzling road warriors, he delivered one of the greatest action films of all time.
He is a unique and thrilling visual stylist, a technological innovator, and just as importantly, a wise and thoughtful storyteller who proves that style and substance need never be mutually exclusive. But has he ever made a clunker? Your mileage may vary, but here's how we think his filmography stacks up.

10. Happy Feet Two (2011)
Like its Oscar-winning predecessor, Happy Feet Two endeavors to tell a whimsical tale about Antarctic wildlife that's packed with both familiar pop songs and ambitious existentialist and environmentalist themes. This time around, however, the style and the stakes simply don't line up, and the result is a George Miller's one and only forgettable movie.

Read more
3 great Tubi movies you should watch on Memorial Day weekend
Josh Hartnett in Black Hawk Down, dirtied in army wear with a shocked and despaired look on his face.

Memorial Day is the time to honor all the men and women who gave their lives to fighting for our country. It’s also a day to celebrate the brave individuals who fought and survived, and those who continue to defend the U.S. As a federal holiday, many people use this day to visit lost family, friends, and others at cemeteries while also looking ahead to brighter days and the upcoming summer season.

If you’re spending quiet time at home with loved ones, you might want to curl up with a good movie. We have rounded up these three great Tubi movies featuring war and military themes that you should watch on Memorial Day.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
All Quiet on the Western Front Official Trailer #1 - Lew Ayres Movie (1930) HD

Read more