Jewish Russian peasants are the characters in 'Fiddler on the Roof.' It started out as one of the most popular Broadway musicals in history, and then was adapted for film by director Norman Jewison ('Moonstruck'). The film is set in a Russia that's on the brink of a revolution. Trouble is bubbling in the country, but more importantly to 'Fiddler on the Roof' is the trouble bubbling in Tevye's family.
Tevye is an old Jewish peasant who lives his life by "the good book." He's a stickler for tradition, so much so that he sings an entire song about its values and morals. Everyone in this small Jewish community is anchored in tradition. The traditions of their ancestors that went before them. You must act a certain way. You must do certain things on the Sabbath and not do others. And, maybe most importantly you must have your father's permission before you are to marry. If he wants to set you up with someone, then tough luck. That's a father's right.
This would be easy for Tevye if he didn't have three headstrong young daughters. He does, however, and they cautiously balk at the traditions. His oldest daughter has fallen in love with a poor man, but he wants her to marry a rich butcher in the town. Tevye is a hard man, to an extent. He upholds tradition as long as possible, but realizes that his daughters are going to do what they want to do. It's a new time, a new era. Jewish women, especially those in Tevye's family, are choosing their own paths in life. Tevye, in the end, is such a push over that he eventually allows the untraditional marriages to take place. The next daughter wants to marry a Marxist, and the last daughter has eyes for someone not of the Jewish faith.
The main thing holding up 'Fiddler's rather tepidly interesting storyline is its enchanting musical numbers. The movie feels much like a very literal adaption of the stage play. The musical numbers burst forth without much lead-in. They're just there and after a while I realized I'm watching the rest of this movie just to see my favorite songs in action. Jewison has been able to inject quite a bit of humor into the story. Tevye is a comical force most of the time with his incessant yelling and haggling. The movie may go a bit too far playing into Jewish stereotypes, but it seems all in good fun.
If you've seen the play, however, the movie doesn't really add much to that experience. It's just a different way to see a story you've seen over and over. The song and dance numbers are what's marvelous. Those songs stick in my head for days after watching the movie. I enjoy the story of Tevye and his family, but I stay for the music.
Blu-ray Disc Vital Statistics
Like the other MGM titles that have been released recently, 'Fiddler on the Roof' comes to Blu-ray sans menu, which is kind of annoying. The movie starts right up and the only way to access the menu is through the pop-up menu function. The DVD has a main menu, why can't the Blu-ray have the same. The DVD also has names for each of the different scenes in the scene selection menu, while the Blu-ray only has numbers.
Unlike the other recent MGM releases, this 40th anniversary Blu-ray release of 'Fiddler on the Roof' doesn't look like it was rushed out without anyone checking to see if it was a decent looking transfer. MGM has recently released movies like 'Secret of NIMH,' 'All Dogs Go to Heaven,' and 'Legally Blonde 2' which all had lackluster video presentations. It appears, however, that MGM paid some attention to 'Fiddler' and made sure it looked decent. This isn't the kind of restoration that 'The Ten Commandments' received, but it's decent enough.
The movie has always had a notoriously soft focus, so we won't really discuss that much. Fine detail is actually fairly visible throughout. Close-ups will show facial features like small smile lines and pores that you haven't seen until now. Colors are strong, with blacks having a nice inky look. There was hardly any noise to be found in the areas with the deepest blacks. There's a thick layer of grain, but it adds to the movie's old-time cinematic feel. There are some flecks and specks that pop up on occasion. One scene in particular, after the wedding party has been attacked by ruffians (timestamp 1:51:20) the camera slowly zooms out, taking in the scene of destruction. This camera movement is filled with all types of noise from specks to large scratches that appear and disappear. There's also some noticeable color changing that happens here that doesn't happen anywhere else in the movie. Overall though, 'Fiddler on the Roof' looks really good on Blu-ray. It has its faults, but for an older catalogue title like this, MGM has treated it well.
I've seen many glowing reviews about the audio online, but I have a bone to pick with them. Either they didn't watch the movie all the way through or they completely skipped large portions, because there are some very noticeable problems with the movie's audio.
Let me get this out of the way first. For the most part, 'Fiddler' sounds great. The brand new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix lends itself well to creating a dynamic soundfield for these famous songs. The surrounds are alive with activity, especially when the characters are out and about in the town square. Dialogue is presented clearly through the front and center channels. Sound effects are clear and concise, like the creaking wood of the cart that Tevye so often pulls. Most of the film sounds great in high definition, but there are a few glaring problems here.
There are significant audio sync issues. Around two hours the audio comes out of sync with the mouths of the characters. At 2:06:34 this is blatantly noticeable when Tevye's wife says "Do I what?" Her mouth movements do not match the sound coming out at all. The entire song after than with is completely off, especially her dialogue. I don't expect perfection, especially for a movie this old that had to be dubbed, but this is bad. It began to grate on me before the song even ended. At times it seemed almost a full half-second behind, which when we're talking about dubbed sound matching up with mouth movements on screen, is quite a long time. Later on, the sync comes back to normal, but at the 2:25:15 mark an entire line of dialogue is dropped when Tevye's talking to his daughter and he is supposed to say, "Never!" But nothing comes out. His lips move, but the track is dead silent for that split second. It's very strange. I went back over it a couple more times just to make sure, and sure enough that line drops out every single time.
I compared these scenes to the DVD edition that is provided with this set. The song "Do You Love Me" on the DVD, which starts around 2:06:04 isn't nearly as badly synced. It's still off a tad, due to the dubbed singing not perfectly matching the lips of the actors, but the audio sync on the Blu-ray is significantly worse. The 2:25:15 mark where the word "never" is dropped from the dialogue is also dropped on the DVD. It's clear that he actually says the word, and no sound whatsoever can be heard, not even his breath. This begs the question that if this is a complete reworking of the movie's audio why wasn't this caught and fixed for the Blu-ray version? It's possible that this line of dialogue has never been in the movie to begin with, sadly I don't have a VHS copy to compare it to and I wasn't around for its original theatrical run. All I have to go by is the DVD and Blu-ray versions and they are both missing the word "never."
Barring the syncing issues and the dropped line of dialogue I was pleased with 'Fiddler's audio presentation, but those two glaring faults bring it down a few pegs.
'Fiddler on the Roof' is remembered well, and as time has passed it has become something of a musical classic. The story is a bit tepid, but the characters are vibrant. Tevye is often hilarious. He's full of life, and so are the movie's musical numbers. The video looks well done, kudos MGM, but the audio needed some touch ups. Those syncing issues, along with that dropped line of dialogue are pretty glaring problems. Maybe they'll reissue a copy with a corrected audio sync, but I wouldn't hold my breath. 'Fiddler' sill comes lightly recommended, but those who are wary of the sync issues may want to rent it first and test it out.