The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground
The entertaining and revealing story of the Klezmatics
Yiddish teacher Pesach Fiszman explains in his brief appearance in the documentary “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground’’ that “for a language to live, it must be spoken.’’
The Klezmatics, a band that formed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1986 and still performs around the world, preserves Yiddish with its original music rooted deep in Eastern European Jewish cultural tradition. The band doesn’t imitate classic Yiddish music; it creates its own authentic sound that blends traditional klezmer - the celebratory sound of weddings and bar mitzvahs - with soul, gospel, rock ’n’ roll, and jazz. The infectious result owes much to the band members’ musical gifts and feisty personalities, which make the film’s talking-head segments entertaining and revealing.
Director Eric Greenberg Anjou (“A Cantor’s Tale’’) followed the Klezmatics for more than three years on the road and in the recording studio, recording their professional and personal lives. His film features lively and illuminating interviews with cultural historians, Yiddish scholars, and musicians such as Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s daughter, who worked with the Klezmatics on their 2006 Grammy-winning CD, “Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie.’’ Like the music of the Klezmatics, these interviews are down to earth and engaging, not pretentious or academic. The band members, who hail from diverse backgrounds, offer insight into the personal and financial sacrifices that even successful musicians are forced to make. The heroic artist cliches are transcended by the personalities: Violinist and vocalist Lisa Gutkin, the band’s sole woman, holds her ground with opinionated trumpeter and keyboardist Frank London, one of the band’s founding members with lead singer, accordion player, and resident Yiddish expert Lorin Sklamberg.
As one of the bandmates notes, the group is a “family that’s functional in its dysfunction.’’ While sitting around a table eating bagels or riding the tour bus, they hash out everything from scheduling conflicts to who gets what solo. These exchanges do more than capture the cliche of the rigors of the road or the dynamics of a band; the communal debates echo the kibitzing of the shetl, the street corner, and the union hall.
Interviews and archival footage are interspersed with concerts and jam sessions, most notably for “Wonder Wheel,’’ the band’s first English-language CD. The film captures the group’s Grammy-winning high, quickly followed by the low that happens when their record label suddenly goes belly up and they break with their manager.
It’s a familiar tale of the perils of the music industry. But the film ultimately resonates as a story of how dedicated artists survive.
All the struggles evaporate once the band hits the stage at a vast outdoor arena in Krakow or before a sell-out crowd at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. As the horns, violin, and accordion cook and the infectious songs send the crowd into foot-stomping, hand-clapping fervor, the Klezmatics are not just the premier klezmer group in the world, they’re simply a great band.
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.