Category Archives: Musicals

The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius

artist posterWhen I was a principal of a day school in Denver, I decided to stage a Shakespeare Festival in which students in the 7th and 8th grades would read and enact excerpts from the bard’s great oeuvre. I gave speaking parts to the students, and I had a particular interest in giving Dimitry, a student who had emigrated from Russia, a chance to perform. When the performance day arrived and Dimitry spoke his lines, I was astonished. Not only did he pronounce the words properly, but he read them like a professional thespian, with understanding and feeling. It was a wonderful performance that forever changed our perception of Dimitry, who until then had not participated in oral presentations in any class. He finally found his groove, and his teachers were overjoyed. His sound made us forget about his silence.

The Artist is an anachronism. It is a silent movie made in 2011, which makes us reflect on the power of words and the power of sight to create art as a representation of life. George Valentin, a silent movie star, is at the top of his game in 1927 as his movies enthrall the audience. Serendipitously, he meets Peppy Miller, a young actress, outside the premiere of his latest movie, and he promotes her for a part in his next film. With guidance from Valentin, her show business savvy and talent grows until she becomes a major star in her own right.

Crisis comes two years later when talking films take over. Valentin dismisses them as a passing fad, but he is dead wrong. His efforts to produce a financially successful silent film when people want sound prove to be disastrous. Moreover, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 further destroys his wealth. George’s inability to respond to changing times leads to depression, which Peppy tries to dispel. Their relationship flourishes and flounders as George tries to navigate the new world in front of him, where everything hinges on the spoken and audible word.

Generally, Jewish tradition encourages silence as a fence to wisdom. More words often bring more gossip, more slander, and more criticism of others. However, sometimes it is important to talk, to protest, to engage, to share feelings with others.

A classic case of where it was important to speak and the absence of speech led to tragedy is the story of Bar Kamtza and Kamtza in the Talmud tractate of Gittin (55b-56a). Here the lack of speech led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The Talmud records that a man invited his friend Kamtza to a party and, inadvertently, his enemy Bar Kamtza was invited instead. When Bar Kamtza arrived at the feast, the host was angry and insisted that Bar Kamtza leave in spite of the fact that Bar Kamtza would be greatly embarrassed and in spite of the fact the Bar Kamtza even offered to pay for the entire party. After being unceremoniously thrown out, Bar Kamtza vowed revenge because the rabbis at the party who witnessed this behavior said nothing; and saying nothing implied approval of what transpired. Bar Kamtza then decided to inform against the Jews to the Romans, which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Speech was required and the rabbis were silent.

The Artist, an innovative retrospective look at another time in the history of cinema, is many things. It is a story of a September-May romance. It is also a meditation on how people deal with change in their lives. Do they adjust to new realities or do they remain paralyzed in the present? It is, moreover, a thoughtful reflection on the power of silence and the power of words to change our lives.

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Searching for Sugar Man (2012), directed by Malik Bendjelloul

searching for sugar man posterI have a friend who is a serious artist, and creates beautiful renditions of nature scenes. In fact, he recently had an exhibit at a well known New York gallery. He often debates within himself whether he should do more to promote his art or whether he should just create and leave the rest to God’s intervention. In the inspiring documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez, a Detroit folksinger, resolves the question of how much an artist should promote his work by disappearing into the woodwork and letting fate determine his destiny.

Sixto Rodriguez’s story is fascinating and wondrous. He recorded two albums in the 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, that sold only a few copies. Singing and writing songs in the style of Bob Dylan, Rodriguez impressed early impresarios with his smooth blend of thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies, and they thought he was the genuine article who would be famous. However, as Rodriguez himself says, the music business is unpredictable and no one can predict with accuracy who will succeed and who will not.

In spite of not making musical waves in America, his albums serendipitously reached South Africa and there Rodriguez became a musical icon comparable to Elvis Presley. His music became the national anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. His lyrics, in particular, were liberating and inspiring to the Afrikaner protest musicians of the 1980s. Ironically, Rodriguez was totally unaware of this and was living the blue collar life of a construction laborer in Detroit. Sadly, he never received any of the royalties for the 500,000 albums he sold.

Rumors abounded about him in South Africa. Some said he committed suicide publicly by lighting himself on fire; others said he shot himself or died of a drug overdose. No one really knew him. But two of his fans decided to investigate what really happened to Rodriguez. They began looking for clues to his roots in the lyrics of his songs. Eventually, the cities mentioned in his songs led them to find Rodriguez’s origins at Motown Records in Detroit, the birthplace of many successful rock stars.

The eureka moment arrived when the fans discovered that Rodriguez was still alive and living the simple life of a day laborer in Detroit with his daughters. This revelation motivated his South African fans to arrange a concert tour in South Africa in the 1990s where he played to thousands of fans of all ages, many of whom knew his songs by heart. Reports of his successful shows reached his friends in Detroit who could not believe that their quiet and unassuming friend was a real rock star with a massive following.

The coda at the end of films informs us that even when Rodriguez made money at his South African performances, he gave it all away to family and friends. For him, it was enough to share his music with his adoring fans. He did not seek fame; rather he sought human connection with his admirers. He wanted fan and artist to symbiotically commune through the language of lyric and song.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that when man seeks fame and recognition, they will elude him. Rodriguez, by living an unadorned life away from the bright lights of celebrity and by eschewing materialism, provides a thoughtful model for us to emulate in our acquisitive age. Our Sages tells us that the truly rich man is the man who is content with what he already has. Searching for Sugar Man reminds us that it is who we are that give us our identity, not what we possess.

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No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), directed by Martin Scorsese

A few years ago, I was visiting my daughter in Lakewood, New Jersey, home of the renowned Lakewood Yeshiva, when I noticed a peculiar item in the local newspaper. Bob Dylan, scheduled to appear at a baseball stadium in Lakewood as part of a tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, was accosted by a 24-year old policeman who arrested him for vagrancy. It seems that a resident had called the police and stated that a man was wandering around a low-income neighborhood looking at houses. When asked for his identification, he said “Bob Dylan,” but the police officer at the scene did not recognize the name. Dylan was apparently walking around looking at houses passing away the time before that evening’s show. The officers then asked Dylan, 68, to return with them to the hotel where the performers were staying, and there the tour staff vouched for him.

As a teenager, I grew up in the shadow of the great Elvis Presley, so Bob Dylan was never one of my musical icons. But as I grew older and my musical tastes became more eclectic, I began to pay attention to his music, especially his early material, which is why I was drawn to No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a fascinating documentary about Dylan’s genesis as a musical icon in America. As I watched the narrative develop with early footage of his career interspersed with a present-day interview, I made several observations. Dylan was a very curious and bright young man, totally disconnected from his home town mid-western environment. It was when he came to New York City that he flowered musically, for here he met other poetic and musical originals who shared his quest for artistic growth. He was awed by their talent and integrity. Over time, however, he truly saw himself as a “one-of-a-kind” artist, who didn’t need to answer to anyone. Other people’s opinions did not matter to him. What was important was to be honest with himself. He confesses that his early lyrics made him a hero to the civil rights and anti-war movement, but these political movements did not drive his art. His art was driven by his musical instincts. In fact, the movie includes footage of him being booed by the audience for performing electric rather than acoustic material. But he didn’t care what the audience thought. He listened to the sound of his own drummer. Moreover, he finds it absurd that celebrities are even asked their political opinions since they know nothing about such matters. For him, silence makes more sense than dangling political conversations that go nowhere.

Which brings me to a Torah perspective that is embedded in this movie. Our Sages tell us that one of the pillars upon which the world is based is emet, truth or honesty. Whether one agrees with Dylan or not, one certainly will admit that this film portrays him as an honest person in an industry full of pomposity and posturing. Moreover, his story reminds us that fame is illusive the more one pursues it. Dylan did not pursue fame in a conscious way; he pursued music and its varied expressions and fame came to him. This is what our Sages clearly tell us in the Ethics of the Fathers: “he who seeks fame loses it (Avot 1:13).The implicit message is to focus on being the best you can be and rewards will eventually come.

As I reflected on the movie, I began to appreciate more and more Dylan’s musical genius and his uncompromising integrity. At the end of the day, I understand why the police officer probably did not recognize him. The policeman was born many years after Dylan dominated the musical landscape and Dylan himself did nothing to promote his artistry other than write and sing songs. He did not rely on a publicist; rather it was his music that spoke for him.  In this sense, we can learn from this musical master. Perhaps if we are true to ourselves and do not look for recognition, we can make our best contribution to the world and notoriety will come to us. Furthermore, by rejoicing in our own uniqueness, we can celebrate the special gifts of others who collectively enrich the artistic environment.


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