In turbulent times, two new documentaries celebrate life, love and family

Film critic Steve Murray says Love, Antosha and Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles are both testaments to the enduring power of love, art and family

by Steve Murray

August 31, 2019

Photo: Lurker Productions/Love, Antosha

In different ways, two new documentaries may make you appreciate your family and want to hold them close. And by family, of course, I mean anybody you love. After all, you never know how quickly people can come and go in this world. 

Opening Aug. 30 at Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema, Love, Antosha chronicles the short, prolific life and career of Anton Yelchin (the title comes from his signoff to the many notes and letters he wrote to his beloved mother, Irina). Whether you liked, or even saw, him onscreen, his time on earth makes for a compelling story. 

Brought as an infant from Russia by his parents Irina Korina and Viktor Yelchin, professional figure skaters who once starred at the Leningrad Ice Ballet, Anton made an early mark onscreen with his enormous eyes and black cumulus of hair. After a memorable TV debut in an episode of ER, he was the kid opposite Anthony Hopkins (and one of the only watchable elements) in the misfire Hearts in Atlantis.  For a while after that, he was in a lot more TV and indies, though his fame skyrocketed when he played the teenage Chekov in the Star Trek reboots.

Because of that multiplex profile, what might have seemed a sad, minor footnote, became much bigger news when Yelchin died in a freak accident, crushed by his own vehicle against the driveway gate of his Los Angeles home. 

He was only 27, but odds were against him from the start that he would make it even to that young age. He had cystic fibrosis, a condition he kept a secret from colleagues, and that his parents kept secret even from him until he was in his teens. On top of an impressive work ethic (many dozen features, shorts and series), Yelchin had to get up two hours earlier than other actors to medically clear his lungs of the phlegm that doctors predicted would eventually kill him, probably by his 30s. 

As a fan of his, I can recommend a bunch of things he acted in. The Star Trek movies are variably entertaining, and so was the violent but well made Green-Room and even the needless Fright Night remake. One to watch with no reservations is the honest, star-crossed romance Like Crazy, with a then-unknown Felicity Jones as the transfer student Yelchin’s character falls in love with. The core of the movie is their attempt to make the relationship endure from their separate nations. 

One fun revelation of Love, Antosha is that, no matter how innocent he looked, in real life Yelchin was a bit of a perv and a photographer. Those two hobbies merge in some of the film’s most striking images, shot on Yelchin’s kink-club crawls through the nighttime San Fernando Valley. They include a couple of self-portraits of Yelchin in drag, though he was straight and a celebrated babe magnet. His one longtime girlfriend is featured in the film, and Kristen Stewart speaks about the awed crush (professional and personal) she had on Yelchin when they worked together as teens. He broke her heart, she says with halting tenderness.  

Other big names testifying to the actor’s skill, smarts and sensitivity: Jennifer Lawrence, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Simon Pegg, J.J. Abrams, Chris Pine, John Cho, Zoe Saldana and many more.

The crucial talking heads, though, are the actor’s parents – mother Irina, her vibrant presence justifying Anton’s adoration, and father Viktor still seeming a little stunned from his only child’s 2016 death. Yes, it’s lovely that Anton delivered an impressive body of work. But it’s clear they would prefer, instead, having their son back. 

It’s not sons but daughter who are lost to their parents in Fiddler on the Roof – not to death but to marriage and the moral scruples of turn-of-the century Russia. The documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (opening Sept. 6 at Regal Tara and Springs Cinema & Taphouse) looks back at the unlikely, volatile creation of the original 1964 Broadway production, under the often brutally taxing direction of Jerome Robbins. 

Here’s a confession: Though I covered theater for newspapers for a number of years, a stage production of Fiddler never came my way, and I’d only watched a few minutes of the 1971 film version, which seemed to turn up on TV on Sunday afternoons when I was a teenager. The whole thing seemed alien and uninteresting to me. Watching the new documentary convinced me to give the film another go, and I’m glad I did. 

Courtesy of Roadside Publicity

Miracle of Miracles also documents the making of that movie version, with too-young but dynamic Israeli actor Topol in the lead as Tevye, the milkman and father to five girls. The ample footage of the many, many stage productions as opposed to clips from the film are convincing that the show belongs most truly on the stage rather than onscreen. The film is perfectly decent. But watching it made me appreciate Max Lewkowicz’s documentary all the more. Even if you’re a Fiddler novice like me, it’s entertaining and informative. 

The abundant group of folks who testify to the musical’s enduring power include Stephen Sondheim, Harvey Fierstein, Joel Grey, Fran Lebowitz, the late Harold Prince (who produced the Broadway debut), Topol, and Lin-Manuel Miranda – who memorably surprised his bride at their wedding reception by performing “L’Chaim” with his new father-in-law and a coterie of friends recruited as backup singer-dancers. To life, indeed. 

Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century. 

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