(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on April 26, 2013.)
Let me guess: as soon as you saw this review heading, the switch flipped in your head and you started recalling the melody of “Hava Nagila,” right? Of course, you did! It’s one of those involuntary reflex actions our brain makes our body execute from time to time, like when the doctor taps your knee with the rubber hammer, or when your mouth waters when you smell bacon. You start remembering the many times you’ve heard it; maybe the first time was at your friend Nate Heller’s bar mitzvah (which I think I did, but I can’t remember well), or maybe it was Anthrax’s use of it in their comedic song “I’m The Man.” Regardless, you know the song, and you know you’re singing or humming it right now. But does anyone really know the song? Its roots, its composition history, its impact on the world at large? Hava Nagila (The Movie) serves up the story of this song that has reached across cultures, races, religions, and musical styles, and it comes off as being one of the most informative, enlightening, and flat-out joyous documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Clocking in at a very short 75 minutes, Hava Nagila (The Movie) wastes none of its time with ridiculous filler or overdramatizing. Director Roberta Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain do what the best of filmmakers do: they make their story immediately accessible to all audiences, and they do so without being bland or trite, nor do they do it by making it feel prohibitive to people from other religions. Incorporating clips from films like Fiddler On The Roof to Wedding Crashers, interviews with well-known media personalities like Leonard Nimoy and singer Harry Belafonte, and educative inserts from religious leaders, writers, musicians, and scholars, Hava Nagila (The Movie) takes us on an odyssey “from Ukraine to YouTube,” as narrator Joey Schwimmer (Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday) puts it. The song’s universal appeal and spirit have touched many the world over, and it’s about time someone tried to explain it to us.
From its humble beginnings as a wordless prayer – a niggun – sung by Hasidic Jews in Ukraine, “Hava Nagila” has enjoyed a legendary existence. With the belief that more can be said in music than in words, this niggun was soon given words and used in celebrations; it also noted for being one of the few completely happy Jewish folk songs ever written. Several people in this documentary say that Jewish folk songs have to do with lament and loss; by contrast, none of the 11 words in “Hava Nagila” have anything to do with sadness. The song’s translated lyrics say, “Let’s rejoice and be happy, let’s sing and be happy; awake, brothers, with a happy heart.” Grossman shows us several possible origins and even uncovers a controversy over who wrote the lyrics, which bears mentioning for the genteel way that it is treated. We see how its life grows and goes, from simple folk song to cherished pop standard, to becoming the source of jokes, to its use in religious celebrations, to its full-circle rebirth as the niggun that started it all.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ve seen a more pleasant and nice documentary. Hava Nagila (The Movie) is a joy to watch, and it even finds time to entertain with its facts and its lessons. So many different walks of life are represented here, and they all seem to be saying the same thing: music is the universal language, and to use it to lift our spirits and voices in unison is one of the most wonderful things humanity can do. Hava Nagila (The Movie) revels in that cheer, whether it’s showing you an 86-year-old woman vigorously dancing the hora or showing you Harry Belafonte’s exuberant duet with Danny Kaye. There’s a lot of sadness and anger in the world today; let this movie’s 75 minutes of mirth wash over you and wrap you in its arms. You’ll be glad you did.