Hava Nagila: The Movie

Katahdin Productions

Unrated

Musical Documentary Celebrates Festive Folksong

To most Gentiles, “Hava Nagila” is just a catchy ditty you get to sing along with at a lot of sporting events. But who wrote the words and music of this staple of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and what is the cultural significance of the timeless tune?

These are the questions tackled in Hava Nagila: The Movie, a very entertaining and informative documentary directed by Roberta Grossman. The film features performances of the festive folksong by everyone from Connie Francis to Danny Kaye to Harry Belafonte to Chubby Checker. Also included are humorous renditions by comedians Allan Sherman and Jo Anne Worley, as well as rock icon Bob Dylan.

But first, considerable attention is devoted to “Hava Nagila’s” derivation. Composed in Jerusalem in the early 20th century, there is debate to this day whether the lyrics, ostensibly inspired by Psalm 118 Verse 24 of the Hebrew Bible, were written by choir director Abraham Zevi Idelsohn or by his 12-year-old protégé, Moshe Nathanson. At least there is no dispute about the melody, which can readily be traced from Palestine back to the Balkans.

Of far more consequence than the question of authorship is what “Hava Nagila” has meant to different generations of Jews. Initially, its upbeat message marked a distinct departure from the general tenor of their folk music, which had mostly been nostalgic and sad.

After World War II, the relatively euphoric “Hava Nagila” spearheaded a virtual cultural reboot that was sorely needed in the wake of The Holocaust. Thus, for the postwar survivors, it came to represent the existence and resurrection of the Jewish people.

However, the picture points out that “Hava Nagila” lost some of its luster with the one step removed baby boomers who came to see the song less as a visceral reclamation of their roots than as a nostalgic reminder of an imagined past. And its being lampooned on tv shows like Laugh-In, The Simpsons and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as on countless YouTube clips, has left sage Jewish elders of today wondering whether the song still has a soul or if it has been reduced to a symbol of assimilation into the American mainstream.

Regardless, this once-sacred anthem seems destined to be forever revered as a song that, at a critical moment in Jewish history, provided joy in the face of loss and hope in the face of fear. Everything you ever wanted to know about “Hava Nagila” but were afraid to ask except, “What’s the deal with the ritual of raising a chair in the air like you don’t care?”

 

Excellent (4 stars)

Running time: 75 minutes

 

The Battle Of Pussy Willow Creek

Wide Sphere Films

Unrated

Civil War Mockumentary Spoofs Ken Burns Production

Over the years, Ken Burns has shot numerous historical documentaries covering such slices of Americana as Baseball and The Civil War. The latter is the subject of satire in this irreverent mockumentary mimicking the tone of the Emmy Award-winning director’s typical production.

The plot revolves around The Battle Of Pussy Willow Creek, a mythical engagement said to have turned the tide in favor of the North. The film focuses on the roles played by four unlikely heroes that fateful day: a gay colonel (Matthew Ludwinski), a nerdy fugitive slave (Barron A. Myers), a geriatric Chinese launderer (Scooter McCrae) and a one-armed prostitute passing as a drummer boy (Mara Kassin).

À la Burns, the picture features a profusion of talking heads, self-impressed experts who wax romantic while weighing-in about what transpired 150 years ago. Unfortunately, this one-trick pony isn’t very funny, as its running joke wears out its welcome after a half-hour or so.

It might have helped if the flick had a deeper message to deliver beyond one advocating inclusion regardless of age, gender, color or sexual preference. By comparison, the similarly-themed C.S.A.: The Confederate States Of America was a spoof which proved far more thought-provoking because it created an alternate universe where slavery still existed because the South won the war.

Even though the overambitious The Battle Of Pussy Willow Creek misses the mark, first-time writer/director Wendy Jo Cohen exhibits sufficient potential to make me curious about her next venture. What’s next, a Glee-inspired, musical lampoon of World War II with black GIs serving alongside openly-gay GIs in an already integrated military?

 

Fair (1 star)

Running time: 96 minutes

 

OPENING THIS WEEK

Kam’s Kapsules:

For movies opening March 8, 2013

 

Dead Man Down (R for sexuality, violence and pervasive profanity). Multi-layered whodunit, set in NYC, about a couple of grieving neighbors (Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace) who flirt before bonding because of a mutual passion for revenge. A-list cast includes F. Murray Abraham, Isabelle Huppert, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper and Armand Assante.

 

Oz The Great And Powerful (PG-13 for action, scary images and brief mild epithets). James Franco stars in this prequel to The Wizard Of Oz as a shady circus magician who gets a shot at redemption after being swept by a tornado from Kansas to an enchanting, faraway land. With Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Bill Cobbs and Zach Braff.

 

The ABCs Of Death (Unrated). A to Z horror flick, shot by 26 directors, with each one’s segment titled by a different letter of the alphabet and illustrating a unique way to die. Starring Dallas Malloy, Lee Hardcastle and Lucy Clements.

 

Emperor (PG-13 for violence, smoking and brief profanity). Romance drama set in postwar Japan where a U.S. General (Matthew Fox) searches for an ex-girlfriend (Eriko Hatsune) while deciding the fate of Emperor Hirohito. With Tommy Lee Jones, Aaron Jackson and Kaori Momoi. (In English and Japanese with subtitles)

 

The Girl (PG-13 for profanity, violence, disturbing images, smoking and mature themes). Dysfunctional family drama, set in Texas, about a struggling single mother (Abbie Cornish) who loses custody of her son (Austin Wayne West) to the foster care system only to have things go from bad to worse when she gets caught trying to make some easy money by smuggling an undocumented alien across the border. With Geoffrey Rivas, Austin West and Will Patton.

 

Greedy Lying Bastards (PG-13 for brief profanity). Eco-documentary exposing the corporate interests thwarting scientists’ efforts to inform the public that the upsurge in droughts, wildfires, tornados, glacier loss and wildfires are the result of man-made climate change. (In English and Spanish with subtitles)

 

Gut Renovation (Unrated). Gentrification documentary chronicling the erection of luxury condos in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn by real estate developers following the eviction of the struggling artists and working-class families living in the community.

 

Language Of A Broken Heart (Unrated). Romantic comedy about a just-jilted, love guru (Juddy Talt) who abandons NYC for his hometown of Rockford, Illinois where he finds himself falling for a free-spirited bookseller (Julie White). With Kate French, Oscar Nunez and Lara Pulver.

 

The Other Side Of The Ice (Unrated). Atlantic and Pacific documentary chronicling a family’s attempt to sail from Newport, Rhode Island to Seattle, Washington by way of the treacherous Northwest Passage.

 

The Silence (Unrated). Copycat crime thriller about a 13-year-old (Anna Lena Klenke) who vanishes from the same spot where another little girl (Melina Fabian) was raped and murdered decades earlier by a handyman (Ulrich Thomsen) never brought to justice. With Wotan Wilke Möhring, Katrin Sasz and Sebastian Blomberg. (In German with subtitles)

 

Somebody Up There Likes Me (Unrated). Buddy comedy about best friends (Keith Poulson and Nick Offerman) who are both in love with the same woman (Jess Weixler). Cast includes Kevin Corrigan, Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt.

 

The We And The I (Unrated). Day-in-the-life drama revolving around the exploits of a group of Bronx teens boarding a bus at the start of their summer vacation. Starring Joe Mele, Meghan Murphy, Alex Raul Barrios, Michael Brodie and Teresa Lynn.

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