Please click on photos for larger images.

After “The Three Lennys” in 2011, its 19-event exhaustive examination of Lenny Bruce, Leonard Bernstein and Leonard Cohen, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival knew what it would do for an encore: TJFF’s sidebar series in 2012 was “The Sound of Movies: Masters of the Film Score.” With special guests, composers David Shire and Mychael Danna, leading the way, Toronto audiences were treated to a celebration of the Jewish gene’s musical genius.

For this year’s edition of the TJFF (, which began on April 12, there’s no such overt attention being paid to the role of music in Jewish life, but there are a number of films that create an identity through music.

Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg

Pierre-Henry Salfati’s Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait tells the riveting story of the iconic French musician in his own words, no mean feat since he died in 1991. Yet the conceit works brilliantly as a way into the mind of this man who would hear people say “God he’s ugly,” when he was onstage. He calls his face “ravaged” and says “I was misogyny incarnate,” but he romped with Anna Karina, had a child (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with Jane Birkin and wrote two of his most famous songs – “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus” and “Bonnie and Clyde” – for Brigitte Bardot.

Born Lucien Ginzburg, he became Serge out of nostalgia for Russia (“I am Slav in my soul”), a country his parents left after the revolution. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was “his first revelation,” but he couldn’t play it the way his father could. And his father was a harsh critic. Still, once his father died, he felt close to him through classical music.

Art Tatum, Rachmaninoff, Berg and Chopin moved him and he turned part of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 into a pop song.

The film begins with a live concert near the end of his life (he died a month short of his 63rd birthday in March 1991), a veritable love-in thanks to his fans. Many of his revelations are accompanied by his own collection of videos, with movie pals Jean Gabin and Michel Simon or his daughter playing the piano under his tutelage. He drops personal and professional nuggets along the way. He was haunted by the Occupation when he was forced to wear a star and carry an axe into the woods for protection. He was an architecture student playing piano in a bar when he met Boris Vian (a major influence). Jacques Brel told him he’d only get ahead once he realized he was a crooner. Needless to say, that’s what happened.

Neil Diamond

Neil Diamond was only three years younger than Gainsbourg; his more prosaic route to success is examined in Samantha Peters’ Neil Diamond: Solitary Man. Gifted with knack of writing pop songs with musical and emotional hooks, Diamond took years to discover who he was. Ironically, that allowed him, following a number of sold-out shows at L.A.’s Greek Theatre, to become “the Jewish Elvis.”

As David Wild of Rolling Stone says: “He was selling sensitivity, raw sensitivity that’s not allowed anymore.” This taut BBC documentary serves up all you’d ever want to know about the creation of  “Sweet Caroline,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “I Am, I Said” from the creator himself. As well as fine archival footage of Diamond at The Bitter End in the 1960s, plus talking heads from record execs to Neil Sedaka and Robbie Robertson.

My Father and the Man in Black Johnny Saul Guitar 1962 PRINT

Diamond began working with legendary record producer Rick Rubin a few years ago, after Rubin revived Johnny Cash’s career with American Recordings when the man in black covered “Solitary Man.”  An intriguing addition to the Cash iconography is Jonathan Holiff’s My Father and the Man in Black, in which a son’s desire to discover a father he never knew leads him down the path of showbiz arcana: Holiff’s father Saul managed Johnny Cash, when the singer wasn’t the most reliable act in show business. And Holiff fils has the phone recordings, the audiotape journals, the letters and the memento-filled boxes to prove it. What the film may lack in style, it makes up for in substance.

Second Movement for Piano and Sewing

A low-key hymn to finding love amidst the loneliness of urban life, Marco Del Fiol’s Second Movement for Piano and Needlework is a curious piece of cross-cultural pollination set in Sao Paolo’s Jewish quarter. After leaving the park where she’s been sketching dress designs, a woman is drawn to a modal tune on a piano being played by a Korean man. We watch these strangers continue their workaday lives until by chance they meet again. The pianist is sweet and so, in its simplicity, is this minimal movie.


In 1980, Neil Diamond starred in an updated version of The Jazz Singer (the songs he wrote for it made the soundtrack album a hit). In 1959, Jerry Lewis starred in The Jazz Singer for the TV show, Startime. TJFF is showing a restored version of this well-regarded vintage nugget on a program with Mehrnaz Saeedvafa’s short film, Jerry and Me. Before you scoff, the stars of two subsequent films directed by The Jazz Singer’s director, Ralph Nelson, went on to win Best Actor Academy Awards – Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Fields Cliff Robertson in Charly. Ms. Saeedvafa, meanwhile, confesses in her film clip-packed 38 minutes that “the hero of her childhood [in pre-revolution Iran] was the one and only Jerry Lewis.” She personalizes colonialism, the CIA, Bresson and poetic cinema, the Iran-Iraq war, feminism and fear of the atomic bomb. And as a bonus, we see Jerry Lewis dubbed into Farsi. If you think that’s farcical, you’re right.

don byron 3  by dave weiland

What Joe Papp and “Shakespeare in the Park” did for Don Byron: “When you got people of colour doing Shakespeare, then Shakespeare was mine. And then Sondheim was mine, Mahler was mine and Bartok was mine.” What Don Byron did for Tracie Holder’s and Karen Thorsen’s straightforward documentary, Joe Papp in Five Acts: he composed the tuneful, lively score for it.

Three films unavailable for previewing promise some intriguing musical insights.

Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, directed by Michael Kantor focuses on the central question: Why has the Broadway musical proven to be such fertile territory for Jewish artists of all kinds? Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that Laurent Bouzereau’s Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir  “is strongest in elucidating the effects his life has had on his movies. Before this, I didn't realise how closely the 2002 film The Pianist was based on precise childhood memories of the Krakow ghetto. It is the film he says he is proudest of now.” Danny Ben-Moshe’s Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema tells of the 2000 year old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry. Who knew? Nu?

Two very fine period pieces have recently opened in downtown Toronto.


The performance of music is integral to the plot of The Sapphires, which is based on the true story of an Aboriginal Australian girl group who entertained the American troops in Vietnam in 1968. Their Irish manager had to teach the three sisters and their cousin the soul music they sang, but for a few months they all rode the exhilarating entertainment highway. There are huge sociological implications to their feel good story but as we discover as the credits roll, it’s the love of singing that has sustained the lead singer for all the years that elapsed since, a gift that she shared with her own extensive family.

Until 1967 Australian Aborigines were classified as “flora and fauna.” Children were routinely adopted or stolen by Caucasians who raised them. Inspired by a true story of the lost generation of Aborigines who lived with white families, Wayne Blair’s film begins in 1958 with a young trio harmonizing a spiritual-like hymn. Ten years later they’re singing country tunes in a talent show where they’re recognized by a transplanted Irishman wannabe drummer, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), whose great piece of advice is that they should sing soul not Charley Pride. From there Sam and Dave’s “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar,” puts “love and affection to the bone” and the movie takes off.

Given that soul music is about being desperate to retrieve what has been lost, the girls’ social status feeds their musical language, they become “The Sapphires” and it’s off to Saigon.

Chris O’Dowd -- seen lately on cable and laptops in Girls as the investment banker who had a brief marital fling with wild child artist Jessa (Jemima Kirke) -- has a constant twinkle in his eye and smile on his face. Funny thing is, he seems to love soul music as much, if not more, than The Sapphires themselves. And he’s crazy about them.


Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa is the story of two 17-year-olds, best girlfriends. Set in the London of 1962 when Britain was rife with “Ban the Bomb” fervor, you can hear Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Les Paul, Sidney Bechet and Thelonious Monk punctuating the narrative. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) ride the rails of left-wing politics and poetics as they play out their bohemian rebelliousness. Ginger is the more grounded of the pair and it’s her perspective through which we see the action. A turn in the plot plays havoc with the girls’ friendship and nearly derails a nicely spun story.

Still, hitchhiking to “Apache” by The Shadows can’t be beat. And any movie that gives us Christina Hendricks (she plays Ginger’s mother) singing “The Man I Love,” bookended by Little Richard and Chubby Checker must be seen.

quartet 06-00702 lg

“This is not a retirement home -- this is a madhouse,” the inimitable Maggie Smith announces in the ebullient new film Quartet. But what’s to be done when the diva refuses to sing?  The show must go on, of course.

Each October 10, Beecham House, a fictional home for retired opera singers and other musicians, celebrates Verdi’s birthday with a fundraiser for the residence. When Jean, an operatic grande dame (played by the equally grand, Dame Smith) and ex-wife of Reggie (Tom Courtenay) unexpectedly moves in, Wilf (Billy Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins) and Reggie see their plans for the latest bash unravel. The titular quartet of concert performers is thus inadvertently reunited, unleashing all manner of grudges and glories.

Quartet (just now in theatres) is a rarity. Ronald Harwood’s highly enjoyable screen adaptation of his 1999 play manages to fuse the acting talents of some of the UK’s finest (Michael Gambon is also featured) and the directorial debut of 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman with a cornucopia of musical excerpts. Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto, Puccini’s Tosca, G&S’s The Mikado, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet and “Military” symphony, a Boccherini string quintet and the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach are all fodder for the cast. Harwood was inspired by Tosca’s Kiss, Daniel Schmid’s loving documentary depiction of the residents of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, which Verdi founded in Milan as lodgings for elderly singers who needed material help.

quartet 11-01447 lg

Music percolates everywhere in Beecham House (named after Sir Thomas) with the residents exuberantly playing out Bette Davis’ maxim “Old age is not for sissies.” As they prepare for the house fundraiser, their love of life is infectious. And with many of them portrayed by musicians, from soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones (unforgettable performing “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca) to former BBC Symphony principal clarinetist Colin Bradbury and versatile trumpet player Ronnie Hughes (his resume even includes the Beatles’ “Martha, My Dear”), the quality of the musical content is assured. Be sure to stay through the beginning of the credits where many of the musicians are pictured in their younger days.

Quartet seems poised to appeal to the same audiences that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel the sleeper hit of last summer.

Among the biggest surprises in the recently announced eye-opening Oscar nominations were five for Michael Haneke’s Amour, just now on screen in Toronto. Amour is the fifth film to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film. The others were Z, The Emigrants, Life is Beautiful and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. None of those swept both categories. As well, Haneke was nominated for Original Screenplay and Director. Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva, who turns 86 on the day of the Academy Awards ceremony (February 24), became the oldest actress to be nominated in that category.

In Amour, the lives of two retired piano teachers in their 80s take a profound new turn as the wife suffers a series of small strokes that prevent her from performing music. At the same time, the husband’s unbridled love plays itself out in unexpected ways. Elegantly acted by two French legends, the manner in which their refined characters deal with this life change is difficult and provocative yet sublimely conveyed. In career-capping performances are Jean-Louis Trintignant at 81 (Z, My Night at Maud’s and The Conformist are among his more than 100 films) and Emmanuelle Riva at 85 (among her more than 40 films, Hiroshima mon amour is the most famous).

French pianist Alexandre Tharaud makes a memorable cameo appearance as the couple’s star pupil. The film begins with Tharaud in recital at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Later he visits their apartment and plays some of Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126, No. 2. His performances of Schubert Impromptus Op. 90, No. 1 & 3 add emotional and musical depth and underscore a particularly poignant moment. Tharaud’s version of Bach/Busoni’s Prélude Choral “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” is heard the one and only time Trintignant plays in the couple’s stylish Paris apartment.

Michael Haneke’s eagerly anticipated, critically acclaimed film won the top prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and was the choice of the Toronto Film Critics Association for Best Foreign Film, as well as that of numerous other critical bodies.


Amour opened January 11 at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Cineplex’s Varsity. Bell Lightbox is offering a retrospective on Trintignant’s and Riva’s luminous careers including, on Trintignant’s side, Bertolucci’s classic The Conformist, Eric Rohmer’s exquisite moral tale My Night at Maud’s, Costa-Gavras’ hyper-suspenseful Z, Krzysztof Kieslowki’s ineffable fatalistic parable Three Colours: Red, the obscure but delightful Dino Risi/Vittorio Gassman comedy The Easy Life, FranVois Truffaut’s last film Confidentially Yours and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s sui generis thrillerTrans-Europ-Express.

erhiroshima mon amour

The Riva lineup of must-see performances contains Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (with Jean-Paul Belmondo), Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (with Juliette Binoche) and two by the legendary Georges Franju, Thérèse Desqueroux (with Philippe Noiret) and Thomas the Imposter (co-scripted by Jean Cocteau, from his novel).


alexander neefIt was an enticing invitation that TIFF proposed: “Prior to the screening of The Death of Maria Malibran, Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company, offers a perspective on the use of opera in [Werner] Schroeter’s work, the filmmaker’s relationship to the opera world and the idea of the ‘operatic’ gesture in cinema.” The event at Bell Lightbox on November 25 was part of a retrospective on the late German director known for his über-romantic body of work. The evening began promisingly as Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan spun the conversation in the direction of Schroeter’s operatic career with the telling observation that Neef (a year before coming to the COC) had been a part of the Paris Opera in 2007 when that company staged Schroeter’s production of Tosca

“Schroeter was more of a presence [than a director],” Neef recalled. “He seemed quite far removed from earthly proceedings.” Most of the staging was done by his assistants, although Neef added that Schroeter was a little less abstract than in his films because he had to follow the narrative structure Puccini had put in place. Neef observed: “It’s really fascinating how Schroeter uses music,” specifically the Brahms Alto Rhapsody that supports the first 15 minutes of the 1972 film we were about to see.

“I’ve never seen any director find such compelling imagery,” he continued. “He really succeeds in translating music into images. The fascination really comes from the emotional content of music.” He went on to point out that Schroeter’s focus was not to make the narration the focus of his operas, resulting in “what North Americans call Euro trash.”

When Cowan credited TIFF Cinematheque guru James Quandt for noting that when the characters in Maria Malibran weren’t lip-synching but rather engaging in “staring contests,” Neef  jumped right in, calling Quandt’s observation quite perceptive, “as if they were thinking the music.”  Neef then added some context to the film’s erstwhile subject, pointing out that Maria Malibran “is one of the great myths of the opera world who died at 28 in 1836 after a short ten-year career” – from a fall from a horse, not singing herself to death on stage as the film would have us believe. She was one of the first superstars and portrayed one of the first female heroes in 19th century operas, Norma. She also famously sang the tenor part in Rossini’s Otello.

“I’m a big Brahms fan,” Neef said. “Schroeter was a big fan of Maria Callas.” He pointed out that Schroeter’s use of  Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” by Callas “in bad voice” in Maria Malibran is “really heartbreaking.” Then, all too quickly it seemed after less than 15 minutes, Cowan brought the conversation to a close and the movie began. As one of the large crowd of spectators said at the end of the film: “I would have liked to have known who sang the arias.”


Still, it was a rare opportunity to see this rhapsodic pastiche of scenes influenced by 1960s underground cinema, German romanticism and expressionist silent movies aglow on the big screen. The cast, led by Schroeter muse, Magdalena Montezuma, consists entirely of women (Warhol superstar Candy Darling notwithstanding) serves the spectacle with an exultant emotionalism that becomes addictive the longer we watch.

Other music included, in part, excerpts from Tosca, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Largo from Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto, Marty Robbins’ version of “Tonight Carmen,” and Julie Rogers performing “The Love of a Boy” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Even more exquisite was Maria Maliban dying to the strains of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, in Schroeter’s words: “blood flowing softly from her mouth.” Two highlights that reinforced the high order of camp that the film defines are Candy Darling in blackface (an Otello reference) singing “St. Louis Woman” in the style of Billie Holiday and the magnificent Ingrid Caven bringing “Ramona” out of its 1928 obscurity with a delicious insouciance. Caven’s own incipient diva-hood would bloom a few years later thanks to her films with Daniel Schmid and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the music of Peer Raben.



Back to top