Delightful docu "A Cantor's Tale" casts a fond eye back at the "golden age" of chazzanut and its star performers in the Brooklyn of yesteryear, while also profiling one of the form's most significant latter-day advocates. Crowd-pleasing item from helmer Eric Anjou will be a must for Jewish and music-oriented fests.

Delightful docu “A Cantor’s Tale” casts a fond eye back at the “golden age” of chazzanut (Jewish liturgical music) and its star performers in the Brooklyn of yesteryear, while also profiling one of the form’s most significant latter-day advocates. Crowd-pleasing item from helmer Eric Anjou will be a must for Jewish and music-oriented fests; access to larger auds seems likely via educational and arts broadcasters.

As a well-known performer, teacher and president of the Cantors Assembly, Jacob Mendelson proves a genial guide to both the vocal art’s New York City past and its evolving future (which includes the training of female cantors — a point of controversy for strict traditionalists). His father was one half of Sachs & Mendelson (or “S & M”), famous deli proprietors, so Jacob grew up in the very center of a vibrant Brooklyn Jewish culture with immigrant roots in age-old European and Russian customs.

From an early age Jacob evinced great interest in and talent for cantorial singing. The leading practitioners attracted fervent fans to the synagogues where they performed — their followings were every bit as devoted as those accorded the borough’s other great obsession, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Despite this special precocity, however, Mendelson was not a model child. A poor student, he ran away from home, gambled, and otherwise upset his parents for years before finally settling into his chosen profession. A boisterous, larger-than-life public figure, he’s gradually revealed as a more complex private one, still haunted by the manic-depressive mother who frequently beat him.

But this autobiographical element is given less emphasis than film’s joyous evocation of a still faintly tangible Brooklyn where Jews had their own radio station (WEVD), theaters, movies, and cantors who were big-as-Sinatra within their sphere. Mendelson wanders around his old ‘hood pointing out sights and erstwhile locations, engaging older passersby and merchants in impromptu chassanut sing-alongs. (Most of them are surprisingly good, reflecting how pervasive this singing was a couple generations ago.)

Latter-day celebrities Alan Dershowitz and Jackie Mason are among those who share their memories on-camera.

Docu’s biggest revelation, however, is the clips of legendary cantors (both local and European, many of whom died in the Holocaust) in old Yiddish-language films. Their soulful, distinctive styles and operatic pipes truly remain thrilling enough to convey why this was truly “the popular Jewish music” for several 20th century decades.

Pic errs only in its last lap, when a chorus of commentators natters on about how important and generous Mendelson has been in preserving/promoting the chassanut tradition — a point we’ve already figured out. Its redundant underlining in final reel momentarily reduces “A Cantor’s Tale” to testimonial-dinner flattery.

Until then, package juggles numerous thematic elements with editorial aplomb and first-rate tech contribs. Yiddish terms are explained in brief, punchy on-screen text.

A Cantor's Tale

Production

An Eric Greenberg Anjou production. Produced by Anjou. Co-producer, Ralph Marash. Directed by Eric Greenberg Anjou.

Crew

Camera (color, DigiBeta), Sam Henriques; editor, Karlyn Michelson; music, Frank London; sound, Magaret Crimmons. Reviewed at San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 25, 2005. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson, Joseph Malovany, Ben-Zion Miller, Alberto Mizrahi, Mati Lazar, Neil Shicoff, Jackie Mason, Alan Dershowitz, Debbie Friedman.
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