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Movie review: The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground

Published Dec 23, 2010



DIRECTOR: Erik Greenberg Anjou

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CAST: Matt Darriau, Paul Morrissett, Lorin Sklamberg, Lisa Gutkin, David Licht


RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

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They may be a Grammy award-winning band, but The Klezmatics are an unknown quantity who can’t get a gig to save their careers. Yet they’ve played in all sorts of places around the world and existed as a group for more than 20 years.

When compared to the other musicians featured in a documentary opening this week at the Labia they are a completely different kettle of fish: a group of crazy New Yorkers who have redefined Jewish music since they first played back in 1986.

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Klezmer music can be described as Yiddish music with a lot of other influences thrown in, or at least it is the way it has now grown within the North American tradition. Originally it was the musical tradition of the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe.

As a band member points out, one man’s wedding music is the next’s E minor chord reminder of the Holocaust.

The documentary follows the band members for three years over a period in which they go from high to low and, serendipitously for the filmmaker, actually win a Grammy in 2007 (the year the Dixie Chicks dominated the awards).

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Wonder Wheel: lyrics by Woodie Guthrie was their first English language album and it won in the Best Contemporary World Music Album category.

Not only does the documentary give you a good feel for what contemporary klezmer music is, but also what it means to each of the musicians. For them it is an expression of Jewish culture, though not all of them are Jewish themselves.

They’re interested in playing the music as a living tradition which is not about to make them any money, so they’ve all got either very supportive partners or other jobs as well. The band doesn’t have a leader and works along the lines of a dysfunctional family unit, which means there are fights and short-hand communication, but it all works out… or doesn’t.

While there’s actually a lot of data imparted by the various people interviewed, it never feels talk-heavy because the music is foregrounded all the way.

While Janine will appeal to classical fans, The Klezmatics functions as an introduction to a genre most people won’t know anything about and it works because it is first and foremost about people and how they interact through music, not the other way around.

Well-paced, it’s a fascinating lesson which doesn’t feel didactic in any way. It whets the appetite for more, while standing as a document to a lifestyle that couldn’t exist anywhere else, but somehow still provides an in for anyone interested in the expression of culture of any kind.

If you liked… A Cantor’s Tale ... you will like this. - Cape Argus

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