Hava Nagila (The Movie): Film Review

Hava Nagila Film Still - H 2012

Hava Nagila Film Still - H 2012

This richly entertaining documentary relates the history of the ubiquitous song that has been covered by everyone from Lena Horne to Elvis. 

Roberta Grossman's documentary details the history of the bar mitzvah mainstay that has been covered by the likes of Elvis, Glen Campbell and Bruce Springsteen.

You’ve sung it if you’ve ever attended a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah … and no doubt danced to it as well in the form of the hora. But you’ve probably never given much thought to the rich history and heritage of the classic Jewish song “Hava Nagila,” an oversight that Roberta Grossman’s documentary Hava Nagila (The Movie) rectifies in richly detailed and entertaining fashion. The film --currently being spotlighted at Lincoln Center’s 22nd annual New York Jewish Film Festival -- will receive a theatrical release later in the year.

Not that you have to be Jewish to be intimately familiar with the infectious anthem. The ubiquitous song has been covered by such artists as Bob Dylan (“This is a foreign song I learned in Utah,” he jokes by way of introduction), Bruce Springsteen, Lena Horne, Regina Spektor and even Elvis, many of whose versions are prominently spotlighted here.

The film extensively explores the genealogy of the song, which began as a wordless Hasidic prayer in the shtetls of the Ukraine before being adapted with lyrics in early 20th century Jerusalem. It since has gone on to become a worldwide staple, as likely to be heard at the Olympics as a Long Island catering hall.

Fueling its popularity was the many freewheeling adaptations by such non-Jewish artists as Chubby Checker, Celia Cruz, Connie Francis and Harry Belafonte. The latter two offer their on-camera perspectives, with Belafonte, who made it one of his signature tunes, recalling the rapturous audience response it received. “The minute I got to ‘Hava Nagila,’ forget it,” he says. Glen Campbell recorded it for the flip side of his hit True Grit theme song, and Horne transformed it into a civil rights anthem titled “Now.” It’s been done in such styles as techno and death metal and endlessly parodied, most famously in Allen Sherman’s classic “Harvey and Sheila.”

Featuring commentary by figures ranging from Jewish academics to veteran bar mitzvah bandleaders (“When do we drop the bomb?” one of them recalls asking his fellow players), the film exhaustively but breezily documents the song’s prevalence in Jewish tradition and its role in popular culture. And its concise 73-minute running time ensures that the rarified subject matter never wears out its welcome.

(New York Jewish Film Festival)

Production: Katahdin Productions, More Horses Productions

Director: Roberta Grossman

Screenwriter: Sophie Sartain

Producers: Roberta Grossman, Sophie Sartrain, Marta Kauffman

Executive producer: Lisa Thomas

Directors of photography: Dyanna Taylor, Michael Chin

Editor: Christian Callister

Composer: Mark Adler

Not rated, 73 min.