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A Tickle in the Heart

"A Tickle in the Heart" paints an affectionate portrait of the Epstein Brothers -- Gotham-born children of Polish-Jewish immigrants long popular on the klezmer circuit, now suddenly concert-hall faves in their old age as that musical form finds new audiences. Good-looking docu puts cultural, historical and biographical aspects in the background, favoring performance footage.

With:
(English dialogue)

“A Tickle in the Heart” paints an affectionate portrait of the Epstein Brothers — Gotham-born children of Polish-Jewish immigrants long popular on the klezmer circuit, now suddenly concert-hall faves in their old age as that musical form finds new audiences. Good-looking docu puts cultural, historical and biographical aspects in the background, favoring performance footage. Result is a pleasurable, if not ideally insightful, package that should appeal to TV and niche screen programmers, especially those looking for Jewish or world-music subjects.

Klezmer, also variously referred to in the docu as Hassidic, Yiddish and Jewish music, blends original Eastern European melodies and influences with the jaunty tempos and intricacies of early-20th century dance hall jazz.

Like many populist forms, it was long considered functional rather than “artistic,” keeping the Epsteins heavily employed through decades of wedding and community-celebration dates. More recently, they’ve been recognized as elder-statesmen “kings of klezmer” by admiring younger musicians and (nonexclusively Jewish) fans.

This new popularity strikes the brothers — 84-year-old clarinetist Max, trumpeter Willie and drummer Julie (the youngest at 70) — as inexplicable. They can’t quite believe Gentile auds are interested in such “real Yiddishe music.”

These very busy “retirees” now live in a Florida senior-citizen community amongst other migrated N.Y.C. Jews. Among local gigs they play here is one for a large group of Holocaust survivors.

Further afield, they provide music at a big, ebullient, orthodox Brooklyn wedding, which affords the opportunity for the camera to scope their old neighborhoods. More foreign to them, in every way, is a concert booking in Berlin, where they’re taken aback by the enthusiasm of an almost entirely non-Jewish audience. During the same trip, trio take a train journey to their parents’ Polish village.

More drama and local color could have been eked from most of these excursions , and helmer Stefan Schwietert doesn’t put much effort into clarifying where the Epsteins are, who they’re playing for, or the time elapsed between segs.

Nor are the siblings themselves portrayed very vividly. We’re told they “came from a family who loved music,” but personalities and private lives emerge in passing glimpses at best. (A fourth fraternal member of the band is mentioned as deceased, sans further info.)

A former associate notes the Epsteins used to “fight like cats and dogs,” and moments of rehearsal testiness reveal a complex dynamic far too briefly. One brother’s daughter, Aiva, turns up to sing occasional vocals. Her quavery, histrionic style recalls Liza Minnelli, particularly on the inevitable tearjerker “My Yiddishe Mama.”

If focus seems a bit diffuse, pic still holds attention, and the brothers make for pleasantly unassuming company. Most notable element in a polished tech package — excellent sound recording aside — is Bob Richman’s B&W lensing, which recalls the dreamy neo-’50s look Bruce Weber used in his Chet Baker docu “Let’s Get Lost.”

While this seems a rather moody choice for such comparatively exuberant music , effect is handsome. English-language, German-funded pic was named after its subjects in Germany.

A Tickle in the Heart

German

Production: A Zero Film in co-production with Neapel Film. Produced by Thomas Kufus, Martin Hagemann, Edward Rosenstein. Directed by Stefan Schwietert.

Crew: Camera (B&W, 35mm), Bob Richman; editor, Arpad Bondy; musical adviser, Joel Rubin; sound, Marc O. Hiker. Reviewed at Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, July 1, 1996. (In S.F. Jewish Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With: (English dialogue)

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