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Cultures collaborate in 'Shtetl to Swing'

The PBS film traces the weavings of Jewish life into the tapestry of American music.

October 05, 2005|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"From Shtetl to Swing," which airs tonight as part of the PBS series "Great Performances," is a short film about the Jewish influence on American popular music and especially its early and continuing conversation with jazz and African American culture. It is a modest work but quite moving in its portrayal of a lost time, world and culture.

By 1924, there were 2.5 million Jews in New York City -- this is as much a film about New York as about its stated subject -- where a younger, secularized generation looked to popular culture for inspiration and to show business as an escape from the "ghetto" (a word the Jews brought with them from Europe). "The songs of a ghetto inspire my allegretto," wrote Irving Berlin. "You'll find them in my tenement symphony." This is not a new subject, but it is an easily forgotten one.

The piece is not, nor does it try to be, definitive; directed and written by French filmmaker Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir, it consists only of a succession of often impressionistically edited black-and-white clips loosely linked by narrator Harvey Fierstein. (Fierstein is seen at the beginning, wearing his Tevya beard, in a historic Lower East Side synagogue, and then is seen more.) There are no talking heads to respectfully differ with one another or lend the film scholarly weight.

In the absence of other commentators, Rousso-Lenoir has written narration that itself changes voice, ranging from the romantic to the intellectual. (One might even say, specifically, to the French intellectual.) She imagines freshly arrived immigrants imagining their effect on the natives, "a bunch of greenhorns with yarmulkes to cover our heads before God, with side-curls and names that sound like one long sneeze." Of 5-year-old Israel Baline, later Berlin, sailing to America, she wonders, "Lulled to sleep by the waves, had he already started to dream of Fred and Ginger?" (No, would be the answer to that.) Many of her assertions are at least arguable: By what musicological or historical reckoning is Duke Ellington "[George] Gershwin's black double"? And did Al Jolson really regard blackface as "a ritual mask, freeing himself from his own cultural restraint and embracing the great taboo, jazz"? And is it true that for Artie Shaw "the vibrant notes of swing represented the furious desire to move from both his own ethnicity and embedded racist codes"? They do not say.

Such uncorroborated overreach doesn't matter all that much here because of the film's formal effect. Its rhythms are different from those of a traditional documentary: It feels experimental, in a kind of 1930s way (owing in part to the age of the footage), a sort of audio-visual tone poem whose primary points are made by the cutting of image against sound and the precise way one clip follows another. Fierstein's low rasp -- how do they hear him at the back of those Broadway theaters, I wonder -- has an almost transparent quality and recedes into the mix, so that what's being said is less resonant than what's being shown.

There are snips of Yiddish films; a spectacular, long tracking shot of the crowd on a busy Lower East Side sidewalk, in what looks to be the 1920s, that is so good it shows up twice; and Hollywood re-creations of the vaudeville history. We see the usual suspects, Jolson, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers, but also the less-often-seen Molly Picon and Sophie Tucker. Betty Boop, whose Jewishness is clear upon a moment's reflection, is here too. So are Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong -- representing the black side of Rousso-Lenoir's central equation -- and the Benny Goodman Quartet, which has America's first integrated musical group stand for its solution.


'Great Performances: From Shtetl

to Swing'

Where: KCET

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Ratings: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

Harvey Fierstein...Host

Executive producer Barry Schulman. Writer and director Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir.

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