AJFF What to Watch: Films About Theatre

06/22/2020

From the conceptualization to the auditions to the stage successes or flops, these feature and documentary films take you behind the scenes from the theatre dressing rooms to the curtain calls. All are films that have formerly been featured at AJFF's annual festival or year-round programming. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened
A must-see for Broadway aficionados, this documentary, featured at the 2017 AJFF, charts the troubled history and ultimate redemption of a legendary Stephen Sondheim flop. Following a string of Sondheim hits, Merrily We Roll Along opened to great fanfare in 1981, but closed after only 16 performances (only to obtain a loyal following years later). An artistically daring musical about the disillusionment of adulthood, the show's story was told in reverse, leaving critics and audiences confused, and further mystified by a decision to cast unknown teen actors as grown-ups. Behind the-scenes footage reveals the electric excitement of open-call auditions, and the collaboration between celebrated composer-lyricist Sondheim and his long-time producer-director Harold Prince. Interviews include Jason Alexander and Mandy Patinkin, composer Adam Guettel, as well as New York Times critic Frank Rich. Lovingly assembled by original cast member Lonny Price, the film relives the euphoria and cruel disappointments of the creative process, and the lives transformed by it.

Blumenthal
The sudden death of a famed New York playwright looms over an eccentric family struggling with personal catharsis in this richly layered and briskly paced dramedy featured at the 2014 AJFF. Emmy winner Brian Cox co-stars as the ubiquitous Harold Bluemnthal, who succumbs to cardiac arrest while laughing at his own joke, but remains a constant presence in the lifes of those he made a career parodying. As the theater community mourns the loss, estranged younger brother Saul (Mark Blum), an English professor, harbors resentment that Harold plagiarized his ideas, a grudge that manifests itself in chronic gastric dysfunction. Meantime, son Ethan (Seth Fisher), a pharmaceutical rep hawking birth control pills and hormone replacements, suffers a few women issues of his own. Can oversized egos and romance peacefully coexist in this tangled web of relationships?

Checking Out 
In a comic twist on Shakespeare's King Lear, Peter Falk stars as the widower, Morris Applebaum, a feisty retired thespian from the Yiddish and Broadway theatre who plans his final curtain call at the end of his 90th birthday party. His three grown children (played by Laura San Giarcomo, Judge Reinhold and David Paymer) flock to his side to attempt to put a stop to the impending suicide party. The question stans, whether to end life on a high note or wait to seei what an uncertain future brings. Audiences will relish Falk's flamboyant performance as well as the film's snappy dialogue, which provides just the right combination of schmaltz and schtick. Based on the obscure 1970's Broadway play, the film is both a madcap and thoughtful comedy that reflects on three generations of Jewish culture, the fragmentation of family, and the closing years of a full life. Featured at the 2006 AJFF.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles
Revealing how the story of Tevye the Milkman became an unlikely Broadway classic, this documentary, a former AJFF Selects, is a sweeping and joyous look back at the creative origins and long-lasting cultural impact of a musical masterpiece. When it first opened on Broadway in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof seemed poised to be a massive flop, only to become one of the most popular shows in the American theater canon, holding the record as the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years. Touching audiences with its humor and heart, the show’s universal tale of tradition cuts across barriers of race, class, nationality and religion. Bringing Fiddler to life through rare archival materials, performance footage, and clips from the Oscar-winning 1971 film adaptation, filmmaker Max Lewkowicz chronicles the show’s backstory, from its early New York roots to the enduring themes that inspire theatergoers across the generations. Insights from the musical's creators and cast are paired with lively commentary from luminaries Stephen Sondheim, Itzhak Perlman and Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda, who are among the interviewees included in this definitive look at a musical phenomenon that continues to resonate with audiences worldwide.

Moos
A socially awkward young woman takes her first tentative steps toward independence and fulfilling a lifelong dream, in this Dutch romantic dramedy featured at the 2017 AJFF. Ever since her mother's death, Moos (Jip Smith) finds herself caught between caring for her grieving father (Michiel Romeyn) and having a life of her own. Her father wants her to take over the family textile business in a Jewish neighborhood of Amsterdam. Moos wants to become a theater star, seizing an opportunity to apply for a prestigious performing arts academy. When her audition fails, she settles for a job at a school cafeteria, while taking private singing lessons. Romantic entanglements develop with her roguishly handsome vocal tutor (Frederik Brom) complicated by feelings for a childhood best friend Sam (Daniel Cornelissen) who has returned home from service in the Israeli army. Balancing her family's low expectations of her against her own pride and determination to make something of herself, Moos reveals an inner strength few suspected she possessed. Suffused with warmth and brimming with beguiling characters, director Job Gosschalk's heartwarming charmer portrays a heroine's quest to find her own uniquely beautiful voice.

To Be or Not to Be
Husband-and-wife thespians become caught up in a dangerous wartime escapade in Ernst Lubitsch's screwball anti-Nazi masterpiece, perhaps the most daring motion picture of its day. With a high-wire range of tones from romance to suspense, often salted with slapstick and black humor, the film centers on a Polish theater company, and a Nazi spy plot that threatens to expose both the underground Warsaw resistance and the secret mission of handsome pilot Stanislav (Robert Stack). The performers are headed by narcissistic stars, Joseph and Maria Turna (Jack Benny in a rare big screen role, and Carole Lombard in her last film before her death in a plane crash). Careening through harrowing plot complications and ham antics, the acting troupe uses theatrical sleight of hand to foil the occupying Nazi forces and the traitorous Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). Opening just months after America went to war, the film was criticized for what was seen as poor taste: juxtaposing comedy against Hitler's invasion of Poland. Today, it is considered a satirical classic. Featured for its 75th Anniversary at the 2017 AJFF.

Wrestling Jerusalem
In a tour-de-force performance, playwright-actor Aaron Davidman conjures a host of different characters while seeking answers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the film featured at the 2017 AJFF. Creatively adapting his acclaimed one-man stage show using only simple props and backdrops, Davidman takes a multidimensional journey into the heart of the Middle East, and the intersection of politics, identity and spiritual yearning. He embodies and gives voice to 17 different characters on all sides of the existential divide-deftly moving between male and female, jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Arab–modeling what it takes truly to bear witness through the eyes of the other. Challenging long-held beliefs with sharp and unblinking observation, Davidman finds both entrenched isolation and shared humanity in the shifting moral compasses and competing narratives of all his characters. Filmmaker Dylan Kussman moves freely and seamlessly among three locations–a live theater audience, the open expanse of a vast desert, and a small dressing room–exploiting the interplay of theatrical spontaneity, cinematic poetry, and spiritual intimacy. The result is a unique hybrid of stage and cinema that reignites hope for the future of this troubled region.