'Hava Nagila: The Movie' review: Oy
It's a pretty cheeky feature, this "Hava Nagila: The Movie," which speculates about the "ancient Jewy force" that makes otherwise sedentary, rubber-chicken-eating guests clamber to their feet and dance whenever the bar mitzvah/wedding band starts bleating out the song -- a tune that is to Jewish music what the bagel is to food. Is it something in the Jewish DNA? Is the song 100 years old, or 1,000? Who wrote it? Where did it come from? Why do we care? Can I have another kreplach?
Making an entire movie about a single song, and one many would be happy never to hear again, does seem a stretch -- and director Roberta Grossman lays it on a bit thick regarding the song's cosmic importance. But the attitude is so much fun and the story so involving that a little naches is forgivable. Aside from tracing the historical roots of the melody -- to Ukraine -- and an ongoing authorship dispute over the lyrics, what Grossman sets out to do, wonderfully, is locate "Hava Nagila" in cultures worldwide.
Harry Belafonte, who appears in the film, was one of its bigger ambassadors, as was the Italian-American Connie Francis. It's been sung by the Simpsons and Monty Python; it's been tortured into Latin albums like "Havana Nagila." Over the years, it's been done by Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton and Glen Campbell (who also appears).
Several musicologists, scholars and "Hava Nagila" experts weigh in on the song's significance to soul and culture, and there's never a shortage of humor. As one musician says, the wedding/bar mitzvah/reunion/anniversary band is always faced with a momentous decision: "When do you drop the H bomb?" Obviously, whenever there's lull in the action.
PLOT The story of the ubiquitous bar mitzvah anthem, from its Ukrainian roots to its canonization as the ultimate crossover hit. Unrated.
BOTTOM LINE As they used to say about Levy's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to love "Hava Nagila."