4:57 PM EDT, May 2, 2013
Born in Ukraine, raised in Palestine, the toast of the Catskills and the inevitable guest star at countless Jewish celebrations the world over, the song "Hava Nagila" has pulled many a goy (and I'd like to thank Dave Fantle for letting me crash his wedding) into a hora for a few delirious minutes.
The song is not designed for resistance. "Hava Nagila" resists resistance, and defies those who decry it as kitsch. Nonetheless the famous melody has been subjected to the whims and winds of ill-favor, along with a million parodies. Those of us who first heard it as the Allan Sherman goof "Harvey and Sheila" don't have the same relationship with "Hava Nagila" (or, "Let Us Rejoice") as those who know something, ancestrally speaking, of its roots as a nigun, or wordless song of prayer.
Either way, whatever one's religion or lack of it, as one observer says in Roberta Grossman's enjoyable documentary, when the band strikes up "Hava Nagila," that's it: "You're pulled by this ancient, Jewy force to the dance floor."
Grossman's breezy chronicle looks at the song's legacy and hardy life-span, traveling to Sadagora, Ukraine, where "Hava Nagila" debuted in the mid-19th century. Not much longer than an hour, the film strikes a facetious tone at the top. But Grossman necessarily takes the song's meaning and influence seriously. For post-World War II Jews, in America and elsewhere, "Hava Nagila" was nothing less than a joyously bittersweet response, in music, to the Holocaust — proof, as various academics and rabbis attest in the movie, that survival had a sound, and the sound was the song sung by an unlikely array of entertainers, among them Chubby Checkers and Harry Belafonte.
"Hava Nagila" springs to life in its assemblage of archival footage accompanying new interview snippets of Belafonte; Glen Campbell (who learned "Hava Nagila" soon after moving to LA as a fledgling singer/performer working the wedding circuits); and, delightfully, Connie Francis. Like Belafonte, Francis scored big with the song, in her case on a bestselling 1960 album of Jewish favorites. The Italian-American vocalist tells a choice anecdote about her answer to everyone who asked her if she was, in fact, a member of the tribe. "I'm 10 percent Jewish," she says on camera, with a warm laugh and pinpoint timing. "On my manager's side."
'Hava Nagila' -- 3 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:13.
Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre and the AMC Northbrook Court 14
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