Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Music Men

In 1957, a song written by Meredith Willson hit the pop charts and found its way into the hearts of millions of Americans. Its lyric read as follows:
"There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.

There were birds in the sky
But I never saw them winging
No, I never saw them at all
Till there was you.

And there was music,
And there were wonderful roses,
They tell me,
In sweet fragrant meadows of dawn and dew.

There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all
Till there was you!"
That song, of course, came from the 1957 hit musical entitled The Music Man. One of the things I have always loved about the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is its consistency in showcasing documentaries about Jewish music and Jews who make music. From year to year, this festival has continued to shine a light on klezmer musicians as well as those who have made history or are currently making waves because of their prodigious talent. This year's festival featured three films of particular interest.

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For some, Music Man Murray affords a trip down memory lane to a time when radio and LPs were the dominant form of music distribution. Those who have spent long hours haunting the bins of used CDs and LPs at stores like Streetlight Records and Amoeba Music know the thrill of finding a lost treasure or encountering store clerks with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of their favorite musical genre. As filmmaker Richard Marks explains:
"I met Murray Gershenz, née Morris Gershenzwit, when I was probably 15 or 16. A lot of music at the time, especially the kind of music I was into as a teenager (old obscure country blues, old-time string band music, and so on), was in no other format but vinyl, and you had to seek it out in dusty old record stores. Music Man Murray was just one of the places you ended up if you were looking for records in L.A. So I spent a fair amount of time inside the store as a youth. I loved records. Still do. And I love great stories about Los Angeles that haven't been told. So when I read in the Los Angeles Times that Murray's collection was for sale, I took it upon myself to take a camera inside the store before it ceased to exist, forever.

At first, I imagined a sprawling, Boswellian biographical epic. In addition to the cavernous record store he had presided over for a half-century, Murray grew up in Depression-era New York, worked as a cantor and had a new, late-life career as an actor. There was a lot of ground to cover, and hundreds of thousands of records in his collection. But once I got inside the place, I found a different story, and ultimately I decided to make a film about records that wasn't really about records. This is ostensibly a movie about a huge record collection, but that is just the setting. It is about death, leaving a legacy, faith, fathers and sons. The central thing here is Murray's relationship with his son Irv."

This 22-minute short packs in a lot of musical history into a tender, poignant portrait of a man whose life-long passion for music helped to build a massive collection of recordings. Whether you collect classical recordings, show tunes, country music, or gospel, Music Man Murray will hit a soft spot in your heart. Here's the trailer:

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For one of its free screenings, the programmers at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival chose God's Fiddler, a fascinating documentary about the legendary violinist, Jascha Heifetz. Some 25 years after Heifetz's death -- and the explosion of celebrity-driven entertainment media -- the crushing loneliness Heifetz suffered during most of his adult life was, surprisingly, brought about by his first bad review. As director Peter Rosen recalls:
"The enigmatic Heifetz was a very private person, expressing his feelings only through his music, not his words. There was very little about him 'on the record.' It was a common belief, perpetuated by Heifetz, that 'the world’s greatest violinist' had a story that was fully formed when he was about 17 years old, already famous throughout Russia, Europe and the United States. But digging deeper, the film’s writer, Sara Lukinson, and I began to see a narrative emerging about this complicated perfectionist whose household name was used as a symbol for excellence in movies, on television, and in print world-wide.

How did Jascha Heifetz the musician become 'Heifetz,' revered as an almost religious icon? How did Heifetz's reserve and perfectionism shape the public's perception and set the standard of what a violinist should be? I was curious about this and about what happens to a person who’s always in the spotlight. What sacrifices are made when you are the greatest violinist in the world?"

Violinist Jascha Heifetz

Upon visiting the Colburn School in Los Angeles, Rosen learned that Heifetz’s studio (which had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son) had been rebuilt within the walls of their new building as a Violin Master Class studio. Not only had it been put together, piece by piece, according to the original architect’s specifications, it looked exactly as the artist's inner-sanctum had looked for 40 years while he was alive. Rosen recalls that:
"Although a near-perfect replica, I began to notice that the rebuilt studio was empty of Heifetz’s personal items: ash trays, records, scores, paintings, date books, desk set, family photos, souvenirs from his tours around the world. The staff at the school mentioned there were a few things from the original studio stored in the basement of the school, which is where I discovered ten rusted film cans of 16mm home movies, all filmed by Heifetz himself, a lifetime’s worth of material from the time he was 17 years old (and had just arrived in America) to close to the time he died in 1987.

Luckily, for a filmmaker in 2010, Heifetz was a camera fiend as far back as 1913, having taken thousands of rare and valuable photos of his family, music colleagues, and friends, wherever he traveled throughout the world during 60 years of performing. The pictures and films of Heifetz's travels were amazing, and historic including, just days before the Heifetz family left for America, the view from his St. Petersburg window which showed people gathering (a protesting crowd soon to be swept up into the Russian Revolution), an incident the family narrowly escaped witnessing at close range."
Take the time to listen to this interview with Erick Friedman, a student of one of Heifetz who traces Heifetz's place in musical history back to the French Revolution. It's really quite fascinating:

Many people often wonder why perfectionists can seem anti-social. After his first bad review, Heifetz went into a near-suicidal depression. With the material he unearthed from old archives and the Library of Congress, Rosen documents the change in personality from a young man with a zest for life to the unsmiling mature artist. Heifetz's explanation for his perfectionism was simple: "I owe it to music, and myself, never to be content."

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His father is a Christian Ethiopian. His mother is Puerto Rican. Growing up as a precocious child in Baltimore, Yitz Jordan's family attended a Baptist church. However, at seven years old, he saw a television commercial which stated "Happy Passover From Your Friends at Channel 2" and became interested in Judaism.

Born in 1978, Jordan has undoubtedly evolved faster, further, more fiercely, and more fabulously than Barack Obama. After converting to Judaism, he moved to Brooklyn and embarked on a career as a self-proclaimed hip hop activist and “the premier Orthodox Jewish entity in hip hop.”

Jordan attended Yeshiva in his teens, endured a short-lived arranged marriage to a Yiddish-speaking woman who didn’t think he was religious enough, and came out of the closet in May of 2012. Using the stage name of Y-Love, he has positioned himself as a freestyling outsider who has been described as "a Black, Jewish, gay orphan searching for a home."

Determined to counter the violent, homophobic, and misogynist lyrics of traditional hip hop, Y-Love's music aims, instead, to bring people together under a banner of unity. Fiercely intelligent (and adept at improvising), he is the focus of Caleb Heller's new 50-minute documentary. which received its world premiere during the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Opinionated, outspoken, and outrageously talented, Y-Love comes across as a provocative, upbeat rapper with a seemingly endless supply of intellect and creativity. As their performing careers progress, it will be interesting to see if Matisyahu and Y-Love become the male rappers/entertainers whose fan base represents Orthodox Judaism's answer to Madonna and Lady Gaga. Here's the trailer:

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