A question any filmmaker must ask is whether or not their chosen subject is worth the feature-length treatment. More important but less frequently considered is whether or not the filmmaker is capable of doing it justice. It’s this lack of examination that explains why films like God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz exist, obviously, often impressively enamored with their subject, but with little to offer beyond insular praise and little in the way of relevance to newcomers. In this way, Peter Rosen’s film might very well entertain enthusiasts of Jascha Heifetz, the master-class, world-famous violinist in the film’s spotlight, but to those who don’t already have his music fluttering around inside the chambers of their heart, there’s little chance of developing an appreciation for it in hasty passing.
What’s most ironic about God’s Fiddler, and other films like it, is that it betrays the essence of its subject while attempting to make it more streamlined and palatable for the apathetic viewer. A narration that details his life story, stock historical images, musical recordings, talking-head interviews, and no shortage of well-spoken praise for Heifetz encompass most of the proceedings, sprinkled around as if on top of a rich, multilayered cake. If the film were in fact a pastry, it might look like the first effort of a blind baker, wildly uneven and inconsistent in ingredient distribution. The editors seem to have worked overtime to hold the viewer’s interest, but they fail to linger on anything that might actually grip us in the first place. Heifetz fans would surely enjoy hearing his passages once more at length, and newcomers won’t understand his glory if they’re only exposed to it for a few seconds at a time, splintered into irrelevancy.
Such as it is, the film might play better as a special feature to a more in-depth biographical work, but there’s one fascinating component that sets God’s Fiddler apart from the herd and makes it of passing interest to fans of Heifetz and cinephiles alike. A fiend for photography and the motion picture, the musician often passed on practicing his instrument so he could shoot footage of the areas he was touring or to simply make movies with those around him. The wealth of footage included here suggests that he rarely traveled without his celluloid-loaded camera. Some of it is merely scenery taken from a moving car or train, but other snippets (like most of the things in the film, these home movies have been reduced to bite-sized chunks) suggest an instinctive understanding of the cinematic language. Without grasping the largeness of Heifetz’s accomplishments beyond PowerPoint fact-telling, God’s Fiddler is ultimately little more than a slapdash roadside attraction, never better than during the featured clip from The Muppet Movie in which Ralph the Dog drops the musician’s name in a chat with Kermit the Frog.