AJFF What to Watch: Films About Music


Music hits all of the right notes in this mix of documentaries and narratives formerly featured at AJFF's annual festival. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.

East Jerusalem West Jerusalem
An Israeli folk-rock superstar uses the power of music to alter political and social realities, and unite musical artists on both sides of the Middle East divide, in this documentary featured at the 2016 AJFF. Often dubbed an Israeli Bruce Springsteen, singer-songwriter David Bronza makes it his mission to promote peace through his soul-stirring vocal and guitar work, and fusion of musical influences. At a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions seem at a fever pitch, the dogged artist-activist tries to fulfill a longtime dream of connecting adversaries by recording an album in Arab East Jerusalem. Crossing so-called enemy lines, he is joined by Grammy-winning artist-producer Steve, Earle. Over the eight days, in a tiny East Jerusalem studio, Israeli and Palestinian music collaborators jam together in harmonious creation. As they share deep conversation and surprising personal truths, the music breaks through the cynicism and fear, and coexistence becomes palpable.

El Gusto
A must-see for world music lovers and students of Muslim-Jewish relations, this documentary, featured at the 2013 AJFF, rediscovers the lost melodies of Chaabi, an infectious musical form that transcends national, social and religious boundaries. Cross-pollinating Spanish rhythms with Arabic sounds, this bastardized meld of mandolins and violins, once considered suitable only for the lower class, became popularized in the old Casbah of Algiers. When the 1954 Algerian Revolution tore apart their egalitarian neighborhoods, the orchestra of Jews and Muslims (called “El Gusto,” meaning “the Good Mood”) fell silent and the players lost touch with one another. Nearly a half century later, native Algerian filmmaker Safinez Bousbia stumbled upon their story and set out to bring together the aging but still spry band mates – now between the ages of 70 and 100 years old – for an extraordinary reunion concert that in turn sparked a Chaabi revival. Echoing The Buena Vista Social Club, this heartwarming film is sure to elicit tears and cheers as it weaves a mosaic of Algerian history, multiculturalism and effervescent music.

A childless Israeli musical couple seeks to form a family in this contemporary adaptation of the biblical tale of Abraham and Sarah set inside the inner sanctum of a symphony hall. The beautiful harpist Sarah (Tali Sharon) is married to Abraham (Alon Aboutboul), the charismatic conductor of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra. With no children, their melancholy life revolves around their music. Enter Hagar (Yana Yossef), a young horn player of French-Arab descent from East Jerusalem, who joins the orchestra and forms a close personal relationship with Sarah. Their bond gives way to something more fraught, when Hagar offers to carry the couple's baby. Two rival prodigies are born– one Jewish, one Arab– leading to a metaphoric and mutli-generational clash of cultures that can ultimately be reconciled only through music. Featured at the 2017 AJFF.

An impressionist, fly-on-the-wall portrait, this documentary, featured at the 2018 AJFF, examines the life and glorious music of Israeli-born Itzhak Perlman, widely considered the greatest living violinist. For over a year, filmmaker Alison Chernick follows the virtuoso around the world, portraying his huge passion and spirit. Wheelchair-bound from childhood polio, Perlman recounts overcoming obstacles with humor and talent, the devotion of wife Toby always shining through. Archival materials and performance clips, including a breakthrough appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show at age 13, combine with behind-the-scenes moments of the venerated artist in rehearsal, teaching classes, attending award shows, and collaborating with colleagues. Perlman’s musical discipline is contrasted with an intimate view of his home life, as a modern Jewish family embraces its heritage in a changing world.

Marvin Hamlisch: What He Did for Love
The musical showman who scored some of the most indelible melodies of stage and screen is affectionately remembered in this documentary, featured at the 2014 AJFF. From humble beginnings as a Manhattan boy and son of Viennese Jews, Hamlisch was a child piano prodigy destined for greatness, having been accepted into the Juilliard School as a six-year-old. He quickly achieved unprecedented success as a composer of such pop hits as The Way We Were, scores for Hollywood films The Sting and Sophie's Choice, as well as the Broadway juggernaut A Chorus Line. By the age of 31, he had won every major award: a staggering four Grammys, an Emmy, three Oscars, a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize. Interviews with Hamlisch, and a constellation of his collaborators – from Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon to Woody Allen and Lucie Arnaz – trace the creative and personal highs and lows of this consummate artist.

The Midnight Orchestra
The estranged son of a once famous Moroccan musician is unexpectedly transformed after returning to his homeland, in this bittersweet crowd-pleaser by writer-director Jérôme Cohen-Olivar. Like many Jews who fled domestic troubles, Michael Abitbol (Avishay Benazra) left Casablanca as a child during the racial tensions of the Yom Kippur War and never looked back. After years of silence and buried memories, the brooding son returns home to make peace with his past. When death claims his father (Marcel Botbol) before they can reunite and reconcile, Michael seeks to understand the legacy of this iconic singer of yesteryear, a man largely unknown to him. With the help of a comical Muslim cab driver (Aziz Dadas) and a host of other quirky characters, he sets off on an adventure to track down the surviving members of his father's orchestra and fulfill the old man's dying wish, finding friendship and rediscovering his cultural roots along the way. Featured at the 2016 AJFF.