I feel utterly certain that the new documentary “100 Voices: A Journey Home” is the most exasperating film I will see in 2010. The film, which documents the concert tour of a hundred members of the Cantorial Assembly to Poland, dashes all over the place, offering quick histories of the American cantorate, the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, the Yiddish theater, and the personal stories of several cantors and musicians whose families survived the Shoah. All of these stories, interesting in themselves and complex enough to reward the telling in a single film, are jammed into 91 minutes in a haphazard fashion by director-producers Matthew Asner and Danny Gold.
The resulting film, which is playing in over 500 theaters for a single night before opening on Sept. 22, is an exhausting and frustrating series of missed opportunities.
From the outset, the filmmakers clearly have had a great deal of access to Cantor Nathan Lam, who organized the trip and the concerts. We briefly see him trying to communicate instructions to someone at the other end of a long-distance line despite his self-confessed lack of Polish. The task of organizing the project, he says, has been huge. That is, no doubt, true, but we have to take it on faith since that brief scene is the last glimpse the film gives of the process.
From there we hop over to Poland for the cantors’ first concert, in the Warsaw Opera House, the largest such venue in Europe today. The filmmakers sprinkle us with a bit of cantorial history, aided by brief film clips of some of the Golden Age greats — Moishe Oysher, Joseph Rosenblatt, Mordecai Hershman, Leibele Waldman. Unfortunately, except for some thoughtful observations by Cantor Jacob Mendelson, there is little historical context for these clips. The result is a sort of history without history. (The audience should expect trouble when very early in the film Cantor Lam offers the Yogi Berra-esque “factoid,” “Ninety percent of most American Jews came from Poland.”)
So it goes for the rest of the film’s running time. We hear and see a lot of archival footage from before and during the Shoah, some deeply moving recollections from survivors and the families of survivors, and some intelligent contributions from Janusz Markusz, the founder of the Krakow event.
But no single subject seems to hold the filmmakers’ interest long enough for it to receive the treatment it deserves. Even more distressing, we never hear a single piece of music through from beginning to end; every single performance is interrupted by talking heads. Many of them are profoundly compelling — the reminiscences of Cantors Ivor and Joel Lichterman are particularly powerful. But what is the point of a film documenting a concert tour in which you never hear a concert? At a moment in Jewish history in which the American cantorate is grappling with profound troubles, this film could have been a vital contribution to raising their profile. Count it as an opportunity lost.
“100 Voices: A Journey Home,” directed by Matthew Asner and Danny Gold will play a one-night exclusive engagement in more than 500 theaters nationwide), on Tuesday, Sept. 21. (Go to www.100voicesmovie.com for more information.) On Wednesday, Sept. 22, the film opens at the Empire 25 (42nd Street and Eighth Avenue).