Come On, Get Happy! by Aaron Pinkston
Used as a celebratory song at Jewish weddings and celebrations, the Hava Nagila is one of the most recognizable songs in the world, though most people who can hum it know very little about it. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked myself where this ever-present song came from and what it all means. Finally, there is a movie to answer all of your burning questions about the Hava Nagila: Hava Nagila: The Movie.
I’m being glib, of course, but that’s basically the gist of Hava Nagila: The Movie. The film works with a research mentality, wondering on the history and meanings of the song/celebration while looking at its cultural and religious impact on Jewish society. Using a nimble curiosity, dozens of clips from movies and TV, with a pinch of historical fact, the film explores everything you could possibly want to know. The results are sometimes humorous, quick and light, but you aren’t going to get much more than that. Still, you have to credit the film by mixing mostly-serious talking-head scholars accompanied lots of historical footage and the usual wry Jewish humor. The film is well edited and moves along — this also may be helped by its short runtime of 67 minutes excluding credits. (I mean, how long do you think this subject warrants?) I’m thankful for its briefness, as the topic can’t hold much more.
After setting up the film’s subject through man-on-the-street questions about the song, it brings its attention to the early years of the song, which was supposedly created in the Ukraine. As with many old things that have had some sort of cultural impact, there has been a debate as to who deserves credit. The short section that dissects the debate has some of the most interesting bits — as the film talks with the families who claim the fame, only after some sort of pride of recognition. Once the song hit America, it went through some changes with the introduction of the influence of different musical stylings, from salsa to jazz. In this middle section of the film, the subject expands to a look at Jewish culture in America, especially focusing on the rise of Jewish life in the suburbs.
I found myself getting more out of the film when it talked with people about their personal experiences with the Hava Nagila. Sadly, this isn’t a major focus. The film’s historical approach doesn’t exactly keep itself at the typical educational distance, but I prefered when actual people talk about why they like the song, what it means to them, and tell their funny stories. There are brief interviews with cultural figures like Leonard Nimoy, Harry Belafonte and Regina Spektor — a strange and fun cross-section. Spektor’s brief section, coming at the end of the film, is the only time the film has anything like real emotional substance — her story of why the song is important to her helps me understand the song’s importance much more than random scholars telling me that the song is important. Perhaps the funniest moment of the entire film happens, after all the grounds are set, nearly an hour into the film, when almost all of the talking-heads admit that they kind of hate the song. More personal insights like these could have helped spruce up the film, giving it more of a tangible context.
The Hava Nagila is a pretty simple song — it’s about being happy, enjoying the moment in your life. It’s pretty easy to see why it was and is important to Jews, who have consistently experienced tragedy throughout their cultural existence. Hava Nagila: The Movie is similarly simple. I don’t know if I learned a whole lot about the song, but I was certainly informed and mildly entertained. Coming from a WASP background, I have a certain extension from the subject, so I’m interested in how a Jewish would respond to the film — someone who has grown up with this song with a different cultural context. It may feel slightly more familiar, but given the simple nature of the subject (and the film), there’s not that much to “get.”