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(Best sung to “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”)
Yentl yearns to study,
Which to most is nutty;
She lives in a man’s world, no mistake.
Still her father taught her;
When he dies, his daughter
Leaves to start a new life full of faking.
Dressing as a man, she starts an ill-considered plan
To learn some more,
And soon she finds a yeshiva and finds a friend in Avigdor.
She deals with an attraction,
And all their interaction
Is focused on debating and the studies they adore.
Avigdor is smitten
Not with what is written
But with dear Hadass, yet he’s denied.
This is detrimental,
So he pressures Yentl
Into taking his place as the bridegroom.
Marriage to Hadass becomes a nightly albatross
She must beware,
Yet she encourages Hadass to learn and never fear to dare.
Hadass’s love is growing;
To Avigdor, it’s showing.
At long last, Yentl chooses
To admit her whole charade.
Avigdor is shaken
By the road she’s taken.
He stays with Hadass while
Yentl’s dreams won’t fade.

Yentl is an outlier among musicals, possessing neither a Broadway counterpart nor a Golden Age of Hollywood predecessor. Barbra Streisand directed and starred in this Mulan-style drama and was the lone singer, though it’s a shame Mandy Patinkin as Avigdor didn’t get to prove his own musical talent, having originated the role of Ché in Evita. There are no show-stopping numbers or much of a “wow” factor for the most part; instead, the songs are written as Yentl’s internal monologues, sometimes sung outright, sometimes in voiceover, frequently featuring melodies inspired by Jewish chants.

Many may have felt the film was self-indulgent on Streisand’s part, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, the author of the short story on which it is based, but Streisand proves her skill both in front of and behind the camera. The cinematography is top-notch, particularly the use of lighting in various montage scenes. Streisand’s singing is unmatched, and she successfully displays a range of emotions, from mournful trepidation in “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” (which brings a tear to my VC’s eye) to impossible, unrequited love in “No Wonder.” Her main weakness is that she doesn’t try to deepen her voice or anything to make her sound more masculine, making her disguise and everyone’s acceptance of it rather unconvincing.

While the film departs from its source material by depicting Yentl’s subterfuge for the sake of Talmudic study in a positive light, I found the film satisfying overall. Aside from one scene of rear male nudity, it is entirely clean and concludes on an uplifting note, in sharp contrast to another Eastern European-set musical Fiddler on the Roof. The Oscar-winning score and songs by Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, Wuthering Heights) have an often haunting quality to them, but they lack the catchiness and the hummability of other musicals. Still, as a poet, I have to admire the fluent, contemplative lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I especially like “This Is One of Those Moments.”

Yentl is one of those films my VC would have even higher on her list. Those who dislike Barbra Streisand probably won’t like this Golden Globe-winning turn as both director and actress, but I enjoy almost any well-done musical, and Yentl is just that.

Best line: (Yentl) “If we don’t have to hide my studying from God, then why from the neighbors?”   (her father) “Why? Because I trust God will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”

Artistry: 9
Characters/Actors: 9
Entertainment: 9
Visual Effects: N/A
Originality: 7
Watchability: 9
Other (authentic period setting, music, and Streisand’s singing): +7
TOTAL: 50 out of 60

Next: #122 – The King’s Speech

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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