The documentary “Hava Nagila: The Movie” turns out to be a lot like the song “Hava Nagila.” It can claim some seeds of gravitas, but they’re ultimately trampled by a lot of goofy enthusiasm. The song is a perfectly catchy entity that sparks quite the dance party after many a Jewish wedding (and some not-so-Jewish ones), but it’s also kitsch.
The movie, too, is flawed, but not enough to undo its infectious joyfulness.
As the film opens, it’s immediately clear that narrator Rusty Schwimmer is going to lay the sarcasm and silliness on pretty thick during this investigation of the roots of the song “Hava Nagila” and how it has evolved over the years. Her delivery often lands with a thud, as when she wonders aloud about the ditty, “What’s up with this thing?” She’s reminiscent of an over-the-top tour guide, and we as spectators have two choices: roll our eyes at her cheesiness or just embrace it. The second option has its rewards.
Those who take that road will probably give kudos to director Roberta Grossman and writer Sophie Sartain for making this history lesson a fun ride. Not only is there mystery (where did this song come from?) and adventure, as the film hopscotches from Los Angeles to the Ukraine to Jerusalem, but also a bit of intrigue, as the film delves into the somewhat amusing battle between two families over who wrote the lyrics. There’s also an upbeat (if repetitive) soundtrack.
Most fascinating of all is the examination of how the song morphed from a wordless Jewish prayer to a dance motivator to a Harry Belafonte hit to, finally, a parodied song from which some Jewish musicians would like to distance themselves.
The film shows renditions of the song performed by Elvis and Bruce Springsteen, not to mention by groups in China, Mexico, the Netherlands and Iran. The movie also features some amusing interviews, getting perspectives on “Hava Nagila” from random patrons at Katz’s Deli in New York and members of the Klezmatics, plus Leonard Nimoy and singer Regina Spektor.
There are many examples of “Hava Nagila” in movies and television, and the documentary borrows heavily from such clips. Frustratingly, only a small percentage are identified. The movie cheekily describes interviewees using designations such as “really smart historian,” which is funny at first but quickly gets tiresome.
These quibbles make “Hava Nagila” feel a little amateurish, but they don’t take away from the goal of the movie, which seems to be the same as the song. It’s a celebration of joy, and with such unfortunate recent events, the timing for a dose of happiness couldn’t be better.
Unrated. At the Avalon and West End Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 73 minutes.