Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen is no ordinary behind-the-scenes documentary. For one thing, it chronicles the adaptation of a musical play that qualifies as a genuine phenomenon. Based on a story originally told in Yiddish, it has turned out to have universal resonance.

It even spoke to a Canadian director who, despite his surname, isn’t Jewish. Norman Jewison has many fine films to his credit but this one had special meaning for him. Finding the right cast and collaborators was as vital for him as securing the right location. How could he have known that his renowned production designer, Robert Boyle, would have a unique knowledge of Yiddish theater—and a collection of incredible photos documenting life in an Eastern European shtetl? 

Musical director John Williams would be an asset to any filmmaker, but there was something special about his partnership with Jewison, as well. Williams explains the breadth of his job—rehearsing the actors and selecting the proper key for their vocals, creating a compatible setting for violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to perform his solos during a two-day break in his travel schedule, and so much more.

Unable to shoot on location in Russia, Jewison chose Yugoslavia (which would soon be wiped off the map, not unlike Anatevka). Boyle even hired peasant laborers to create the look and feel of an early 20th-century shtetl, including an authentic Orthodox synagogue, which was built from scratch.

Seeking a proper look for the film, British cinematographer Oswald Morris sent a crew member off to purchase women’s stockings, which he affixed to his lenses. This translucent touch helped create the gray-brown look the director was going for. 

All of this is recounted with joy and affection by the film’s surviving creators (including cast members and 97-year old lyricist Sheldon Harnick) and an exquisitely moving John Williams. But Jewison “sells” the story behind his cinematic achievement because we can see for ourselves the kind of youthful enthusiasm that translated to commitment from his compatriots.  

Filmmaker Daniel Raim and writer-researcher Michael Sragow can be proud of what they achieved here: a moving and meaningful tribute to a major American musical that has too often been taken for granted.

The film opens today at the Angelika Film Center and on May 5 at Laemmle’s Royal in Los Angeles.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024