ArtsATL > Film > Jewish Film Festival review: Three documentaries trace Yiddish roots of modern American show business

Jewish Film Festival review: Three documentaries trace Yiddish roots of modern American show business

Irving Berlin from "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy."
Irving Berlin from "Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy."
Irving Berlin in “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy.”

Three new documentaries being shown at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival examine Jewish contributions to American show business. Though “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” and “Lunch” take broad looks at the enormous cultural contributions of Jewish entertainers, it’s actually the much narrower “Joe Papp in Five Acts” that offers the most compelling and intriguing investigation of the subject.

The running joke in “Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy” (GTC Merchants Walk February 3 at 4 p.m.; Lefont Sandy Springs February 18 at 2:35 p.m.) is the question, who on Broadway wasn’t Jewish? The answer, among the groundbreaking Broadway creators and composers, was Cole Porter and … um, Cole Porter. Broadway’s ties to Yiddish theater and Jewish artists are so strong that the filmmakers and interview subjects return several times to the joke. As the song from the recent Broadway musical Monty Python’s “Spamalot, which opens the film, has it, “In any great adventure, if you don’t want to lose … you won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”

Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, Bernstein — the list goes on. There’s even an apocryphal story related in the film that a young, struggling Porter joked that he needed to learn to write Jewish songs if he was to have any success.

The subject is huge, and any documentarian who sets out to include the stories of Kurt Weill’s journey to America, Barbra Streisand’s being chosen to play Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” Miles Davis’ covering the Gershwins’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the back story behind the songs in “Annie” certainly has his work cut out for him. But filmmaker Michael Kantor does a fantastic job of packing a lot of information into 90 minutes, with dynamic archival footage and lively interviews, making a convincing case that the “sing and be happy” heart of Broadway — the stories of hope, toughness and perseverance that are at its core — is uniquely American and essentially Jewish.

Donna Kanter’s “Lunch” (UA Tara Cinemas, February 3 at 11 a.m.; Lefont Sandy Springs, February 15 at noon) takes a similar long view. Kanter focuses in on a large and ever-evolving group of Jewish comics and showbiz legends, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Gary Owens among them, who have met for lunch every other Wednesday for 40 years.

It’s a charming story: one of enduring friendship, the challenges of old age, a fading show business ethic. But it can be hard to get into the film’s low-key pace and boys’ club (very old boys) atmosphere. Younger viewers who didn’t grow up with these people may not understand why we’re focusing on them so closely. And the humor, though winning, is now too much of the hearing-aids-and-hip-replacement, grumpy-old-men variety to really convince newcomers that this lunch is worth the wait.

“Joe Papp in Five Acts”

Even those who have never heard the name Joseph Papp will likely be utterly drawn into his story as told by filmmakers Tracie Holder and Karen Thorsen in “Joe Papp in Five Acts” (Lefont Sandy Springs, February 10 at 11:25 a.m.). Papp was the creator of New York’s free Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theater, which produced such important and transformative shows as “Hair,” “A Chorus Line” and “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide.”

Papp was a complicated figure: a relentlessly bold, dogged, lively and very public man who kept much of his private life, including his Jewish heritage, hidden. Many early associates, even close ones, didn’t know he had a wife and child. An active Communist, Papp saw theater itself as radical and radically transformative. Always sympathetic to the underdog, he could also be tyrannical and domineering.

As the filmmakers argue, a life in theater is ultimately a search for self. It’s a search that’s most likely doomed to failure but, as Papp would have it, is ultimately worthwhile. Perhaps it is this existential paradox — approached with humor, daring and profound humility by the complex and haunted Papp — that best encapsulates the Jewish sensibility, which has been so crucial and transformative to American entertainment.

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