God's Fiddler

It seems that at some point in the 20th century, becoming a violin prodigy—or even better, siring one—came to symbolize the definitive source of Jewish family pride, surpassing Talmud scholarship, financial acumen or athletic prowess as the certifiable indicator of God-given genius. How did this happen? Two words: Jascha Heifetz. In this entertaining and music-filled documentary, we meet the Russian wunderkind who took America by storm as a teenager in 1917 and who over a long and astonishing career redefined the modern virtuoso, his name entering popular culture as shorthand for artistic perfection. “When I spoke with him,” Itzhak Perlman says on camera, ”I thought, ‘I can’t believe it—I’m talking with God!’” The documentary gives ample evidence that reverence for Heifetz’s playing is not misplaced even today; his expressive tone was matched by breathtaking technical precision, drilled into him early by a taskmaster father—a relationship that played no small part in making Heifetz a difficult adult. Luckily he was also a self-described “camera fiend,” and the film is rich with home movies from his earliest days in Vilna through his famously idiosyncratic later years in Beverly Hills. Like any good biography, the film is peppered with anecdotes from colleagues and students, if not friends— he seems not to have had many. Genius has its price.
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