Tzivi's Cinema Spotlight

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After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is now living in Brooklyn, completing research for her book on Fiddler on the Roof. Follow Jan's adventures on her Blog www.SecondCityTzivi.com.

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Tzivi reviews Marvin Hamlisch: WHDFL

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"Is it good for the Jews?" One quick look at this year's Golden Globe nominations reveals the obvious: 2013 has been "a bad year for the Jews" in movieland, not just in Hollywood but beyond.

Of the 10 candidates for Best Motion Picture, the only two with Jewish content are both about con men. In American Hustle, Christian Bale stars as "Irving Rosenfeld" (complete with a big pot belly, a bad comb-over, and an enormous Star of David on his extremely hairy chest). In The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio stars as "Jordan Belfort," a man as smooth as his Americanized name but even more amoral.

On the other hand, none of this year's five Best Foreign Language Film candidates has any Jewish content whatsoever, and there is no BFLF candidate from Israel (worldwide recognition that we had celebrated five times in the past decade).

But wait! Don't despair! Here comes Super-Mensch Marvin Hamlisch riding to the rescue just before the stroke of midnight!

Marvin Hamlisch died last year on Aug 6 at the age of 68. As far as I can tell (from reading obituaries), he really did die suddenly. This is not another case in which terminal illness was deliberately hidden from the public. But just like Nora Ephron's death the year before, the shock was enormous and the outpouring of grief was genuine.

The story in the new documentary Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love begins with two Jewish refugees from Vienna-Max and Lilly-who gave birth to a musical prodigy on June 2, 1944 (four days before D Day). In 1951, six year old Marvin was a student at Julliard (!), and by the time he was 20, Marvin had made his way to Broadway, serving as a rehearsal pianist for Barbra Streisand and the cast of Funny Girl. The older he grew, the more he spread his wings, and by the time of his death Marvin Hamlisch had become one of history's only "EGOTs" (that is, the winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and Oscar, and a Tony). He also won a Pulitzer Prize, two Golden Globes, and shelves full of additional honors and testimonials.

And through it all, he seems to have been a genuinely nice guy: a good and loving son who married one woman--Terre Blair--and stayed true to her until the end. (Even Paul Newman, a paragon in every way, suffered through an early divorce before meeting soul mate Joanne Woodward.)

I don't know where director Dori Berinstein was in her process when Hamlisch died, but the film she has crafted for the PBS series "American Masters" captures all that emotion and more. It is less a critical biography than a cinematic eulogy-a national memorial service in which we can all participate to ease the pain of a shared loss.

This is Berinstein's third Broadway documentary. The first was ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, which I reviewed for JUF when it played at our Music Box Theatre in June 2007. The second was Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, which received a "Gold Hugo" nomination in the documentary film category from our 2011 Chicago International Film Festival. When I asked her about the affinity between Jews and Broadway back in '07, Berinstein said:

"Theater makes you think and theater makes you feel. There's a long, very wonderful history of Jews being involved in this art form, and having used it to create change in the way people see the world. It's also just an inspiring, transporting art form, so what's not to love?"

And that is the story of Marvin Hamlisch in a nutshell. Born into a family that had no grandparents, he used music to "create change in the way people see the world," and we are all the better for it. And Berinstein, with her extraordinary insider access, makes it clear that Marvin Hamlisch lived a life well-lived.

Full Disclosure: I was a bit late catching up to A Chorus Line, so by the time I finally saw it in a "Broadway in Chicago" production in 1983, I had already heard the song "What I Did for Love" a zillion times. Silly me: I thought the girl was singing about some guy, so when I heard it in context, I was floored. I had just decided to forgo an academic career and transition into health care. I thought no one had ever felt my kind of pain before, but somehow, for all his great success, Hamlisch understood that sometimes the road has bumps, and his music helped get me through to the other side.

Bravo, Marvin Hamlisch. May your memory be for blessing.

Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love will air on PBS beginning on Friday Dec 27 as part of the "American Masters" series. Click here to check local listings.

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"Kiss today good bye and point me towards tomorrow…" Click here to listen to Natalie Cortez sing "What I Did for Love" on the 2006 Broadway Revival Cast Recording of A Chorus Line.

New Year's Bonus! You can also watch Idina Menzel sing "What I Did for Love," accompanied by Marvin Hamlisch himself, in the PBS special "A Broadway Celebration: In Performance at the White House" from July 19, 2010. (Start 41:34/Stop 45:09) The full broadcast includes signature numbers by more great stars including Audra McDonald, Nathan Lane, Tonya Pinkins and Elaine Stritch.

Sign in here to watch in High Def on the PBS website, or click here to watch the whole broadcast on YouTube.

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Top Photo: One month after Marvin Hamlisch died, Barbra Streisand sang to him at a tribute concert in New York City. Photo Credit: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS/NewsCom (9/18/12). All Rights Reserved. 

Bottom Photo: Dori Berinstein (middle) with Alissa Norby and Robert Kisting at a private reception after the screening of Carol Channing: Larger Than Life at the Chicago International Film Festival. Photo Credit: Jan Lisa Huttner (10/15/11)

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