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History of 'Hava Nagila' struggles to fill an entire documentary

Roberta Grossman's documentary about the origins, life and evolution of the song "Hava Nagila" should have taken its subject a bit more seriously.

Scholar Josh Kun jokes around at Canter's Deli in Los Angeles in "Hava Nagila: The Movie." Credit: Hava Nagila: The Movie Scholar Josh Kun jokes around at Canter's Deli in Los Angeles in "Hava Nagila: The Movie."
Credit: Hava Nagila: The Movie

'Hava Nagila: The Movie'
Director: Roberta Grossman
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

It might seem excessive to devote an entire documentary to a single song. The makers of “Hava Nagila: The Movie” seem to have felt that way. There’s a lot of padding and desperate attempts to make this feature-length — and it’s still less than 75 minutes. But their subject is good for at least an hour’s worth of solid edutainment, even if it never quite solves the issue of whether a film about one song would play said song more times than its viewers’ patience can tolerate.

The life of “Hava Nagila” is also, at least in the documentarians’ eyes, the story of Jewish life post-WWII. Scattered and traumatized by the Holocaust, the Jewish people needed a motivating factor. They got it in an old, somewhat obscure traditional song, which violated the usual klezmer style and could prove to have crossover appeal, while still being unmistakably “ethnic.” In the ‘50s and ‘60s the song was everywhere, helping to create a populist identity for a community that had experienced severe tragedy, and “normalize” them.

The filmmakers go too far, and in other cases not far enough. Crediting the popularity of “Hava Nagila” with the popularity of Woody Allen and other Jewish comedians in the ‘70s is, to say the least, dodgy. At the same time it never goes into, or even acknowledges, the anti-Semitism that nevertheless thrived despite the fun pop hit that was recorded by everyone — from Dick Dale to Glen Campbell, as the B-Side to “True Grit.”

Sloppy thinking is everywhere in the film, though it’s still more fascinating than it needed to be, often despite itself. The initial presentation is overly jokey, as though the film was ashamed to concern itself with such a trivial-sounding subject. The procession of sometimes dry historians and scholars who eventually crop up seems odd in a film that bills one rabbi as “deli patron.” When it turns more serious, a genial host is traded for a narrator that sounds like a robot, although a robot would be more audibly embarrassed to read lines such as, “At the museum, we met a really smart historian.” Despite its self-deprecating tone, “Hava Nagila: The Movie” only proves that its topic isn’t trivial, and in fact has a lot to say about Jewish life in America, particularly in relation to Israel, where the song is not popular. Oddly, a doc that seems to be overextended reveals that it could have been even longer.

 
 
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