Friday, March 1, 2013

Kitsch transformed (maybe transcended): Roberta Grossman's docu, HAVA NAGILA

Not being Jewish (although he married a Jew, and hence has a Jewish daughter and Jewish grandkids, and has now also lived with his male Jewish companion for nearly a quarter century), TrustMovies has long considered that old standard (as we used to call 'em) Hava Nagila as one of the things that utterly defines kitsch. Played at every Jewish wedding and Bar or Bat Mitzvah that he's attended over the years, the song immediately calls to mind every Jewish cliché ever seen, spoken or thought. (Fiddler on the Roof, for me, produces the same kitschy feeling. Rags, I believe, is by far the better musical.) Well, some people simply revel in cliché (and call it tradition). Yet it may not only be those people who cotton to the new documentary -- HAVA NAGILA (THE MOVIE) -- which is all about the history and provenance of this fabled song.

The director, Roberta Grossman (shown at right) and writer, Sophie Sartain, have their tongues in cheek from the start. They understand what they're dealing with (they even includes a section involving folk who hate the song, and there plenty of these -- Jews and non-Jews alike). After getting an interesting opinion from one of their talking heads that they feel a need to counter, they explains that "We'll have to ask someone else." The next interviewee is identified simply as Someone Else. (This sort of thing could get kitschy, too, but the filmmakers don't overdo it.)

Our little song, it turns out, began a couple of centuries ago in the Ukraine, and has -- as the writer & director put it -- now made the journey from Ukraine to YouTube. The music preceded the lyrics by quite some time; in fact, exactly who wrote those lyrics is in dispute. (Grossman/Sartain give us both sides of the dispute -- it's fascinating, all right -- and they seem to feel we should maybe allow room for both in our final judgment.)

In a section called Hava Meets Hora, we see how and why dance is inextricably connected to the song. We also learn how and when Hava emigrated from Eastern Europe to Palestine, as well as its important usage during the creation of the state of Israel.

When the celebs start appearing -- Leonard Nimoy, Harry Belafonte, Danny Kaye, Glen Campbell, Connie Francis, the Klezmatics, Regina Spektor -- if you weren't hooked already, you soon will be.  Listening to Belafonte (below), in particular, talk about what the song means to him (then seeing him sing it with Kaye) goes a long way toward kitsch-reduction.

This is a lightweight movie, for sure, but in its scope and reach (albeit on a much less intellectual level), it does for Hava Nagila, something on the order of what Joseph Dorman's recent and wonderful documentary did for Sholem Aleichem. It gives us history served up as genuine entertainment, as well as yet another enjoyable walk down memory lane.

I'll probably never again attend a Jewish event at which the song is played that this little movie -- and what I learned from it -- doesn't immediately pop up in my mind and put a smile on my face. Thank you, Ms Grossman and Ms Sartain.

Hava Nagila (The Movie), running just 73 minutes, opens today, Friday, March 1, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and on March 15, will hit the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Royal, Noho 7, Town Center 5, Playhouse 7 -- and Orange Country, too.

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