When a band has been together for nearly a quarter of a century, a celebration is warranted. If it’s a Jewish band, you can assume that a certain amount of tsuris has accompanied the success.
That’s the case with the Klezmatics, the world-renowned klezmer band founded in the mid-1980s in New York’s East Village. Beloved for their rousing, soulful performances, the group’s onstage camaraderie masks a surprising amount of offstage tension.
Music documentaries, such as Erik Greenberg Anjou’s excellent The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground, acknowledge fans’ demands that their spirits not just be raised but untethered.
The music is a highlight, with a slew of toe-tapping numbers and poignant Yiddish ballads recorded in a variety of venues. But the heart of the documentary is the sometimes heated dynamic among longtime members: Frank London (the high-energy trumpet player and keyboardist), violinist Lisa Gutkin (the lone woman), saxophone and clarinet maestro Matt Darriau, Paul Morrissett (bass and tsimbal) and charismatic accordionist, guitarist and pianist Lorin Sklamberg.
The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground is not a rags-to-riches chronicle of a successful group undone by drugs, egos or nefarious record-company executives. Nor is it a saga of serious artists forced to compromise to attain mainstream popularity, or refusing to bend and therefore suffering commercial ignominy.
At its core, the documentary is about the challenge a middle-aged artist faces to earn a consistent income (and perhaps support a family). It’s almost incidental that the art form is an eclectic ethnic music with avant-garde elements that has a niche audience.
Anjou filmed the band on and off over more than four years, and the musicians graciously (albeit reluctantly, at first) allowed the film crew to record some of their meetings. While it is fascinating to observe mature, mutually respectful adults fighting fairly – talking straight without manipulation, name-calling or sugar coating – the tension eventually darkens the mood.
Although creative disagreements are inevitable when strong-willed musicians play together, the real angst on display in The Klezmatics involves clashing priorities. London’s numerous side projects and session dates complicate scheduling a Klezmatics tour. And for some of the other members, live performance is their main source of income.
What we glean is that all the acclaim – and the inspiration of collaborating over the years with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Tony Kushner, Itzhak Perlman and Chava Alberstein, and even a Grammy Award for best contemporary world music album for “Wonder Wheel” (2006) – are tempered by the real-world realities of making a living.
This valuable documentary amply honors the band’s steadfast contribution to Jewish music and culture. Indeed, all the mishegas melts away when the ensemble takes the stage and connects, as it always does, with both Jewish tradition and diverse audiences.
And it is the songs, with their echoes of loss, love and friendship, as much as the musicians’ candid relationship, that make The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground such a bittersweet and rewarding experience.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.