Rusty Schwimmer, the narrator of the documentary Hava Nagila: The Movie, describes in a tone of amused wonderment the titular Jewish song as being both “kitschy” and “profound.” Reading from a script by Sophie Sartain, Schwimmer makes her voice both sharp and soft, cutting through the interviewees’ bewildered speculations about what “Hava Nagila” could mean, and adding zest to what could easily have been a dry history lesson, which makes the facts go down as easily as the jokes. Early in the documentary, while describing being at a hypothetical Jewish reception and then hearing the music start, she says, “Something lights up in your DNA; you’re pulled by this ancient Jew-y force to the dance floor.” The doc is marked both by this casualness and inquisitiveness, and it’s very much the product of its seat-of-the-pants production that grew from director Roberta Grossman’s first interview with musicologist Josh Kun, who made her realize how rich the subject is.
Grossman does a competent job of tracing the historical and cultural threads of “Hava Nagila,” from its origins as a wordless prayer, or nigun, in the Ukraine, to its popularity among Jewish Americans (but not Israelis) as a link to their past, to its global invasiveness as a species of song that’s simply fun to sing along to, but doesn’t really mean anything. Attesting to the latter is Harry Belafonte’s interviews, wherein he says that besides “Banana Boat,” when he was performing all over the world, “Hava Nagila” was his most recognized song. But whereas Belafonte recalls the song sentimentally, the doc is always quick to acknowledge that many people feel a kind of scorn toward it, such as Henry Sapoznik, a revivalist of klezmer music, who likens it to a “cul-de-sac,” not a “gateway,” to Jewish culture. And though it ends on a positive note about the song (that it’s ultimately a “song of hope in spite of fear,” etc.), the film feels pervaded by the sense that its subject matter is cheesy. Because of this, watching Hava Nagila can at times feel like you’re wasting your time on a subject you might wish you had only accidentally crossed paths with briefly on Wikipedia, which makes it hard to recommend to anyone who doesn’t already have a strong interest or connection to the song.