Three Legends Offer New Gifts for Chanukah
ChanukahArts & Culture

Three Legends Offer New Gifts for Chanukah

Streisand, Spielberg, and Dylan revisit the past in print, film and recordings.

Steven Spileberg’s “The Fabelmans” is a fictionalized account of the director’s years as a teen.
Steven Spileberg’s “The Fabelmans” is a fictionalized account of the director’s years as a teen.

Chanukah gift givers who are looking for selections from some of the greatest names in American entertainment have several recent, outstanding choices to pick from this year. What makes offerings from Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, and Bob Dylan even more appealing is that they can be paired with videos that are available on streaming sites or DVDs.

Streisand, who celebrated her 80th birthday in April, has reached deep in her vault of recorded performances to come up with her very first effort for Columbia Records. The disc, “Live at the Bon Soir,” is from her appearances at the Bon Soir night spot in Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan, soon after she signed with the record label. There are 24 tracks taken from a week-long series of recordings done in early November 1962, most of which have been previously unreleased. Columbia moved their portable recording machines into the intimate confines of the club to try to capture some of the magic the then 20-year-old singer was creating for audiences there.

Barbra Streisand, for the first time, has released her initial recordings for Columbia Records in 1962.

Streisand had recently become a sensation on Broadway in her debut as Miss Marmelstein in “I Can Get It For You Wholesale.” Columbia had paid her a substantial signing bonus of $20,000, or about $185,000 in today’s money. They quickly realized that Streisand’s talent was not yet polished enough for a recording of live performances and the week of tapes was stored away in their vaults. But these tracks, with an assist from recording engineer Jochem van der Saag, bring us a close up look at a talent just starting to blossom.

Three months after the Bon Soir sessions, in late February 1963, Columbia released “The Barbra Streisand Album,” produced in a New York recording studio. It won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance. The disc is still very much in print and would provide a nice complement to the Bon Soir recordings of the birth of a show business phenomenon almost exactly 60 years ago. For a video that attempts to recapture some of those years, try “One Night Only,” a Streisand performance from Sept. 26, 2009, at New York’s Village Vanguard. Netflix is also streaming a concert she performed in Miami in 2017.

During the early 1960s another Jewish American singer named Robert Zimmerman was having an equally stunning early career in New York.

Zimmerman, who grew up in Hibbing, Minn., an iron ore mining town, changed his name to Bob Dylan and helped launch a revolution that is still being felt in the world of music.

Dylan is still touring at the age of 81, after more than 3,000 performances. He is booked for another 200 performances each year through 2024. During his free time on the road over the last 12 years he has been working on a new book. The Nobel laureate for literature, who was honored for his songwriting legacy in 2016, has written a work with a title that befits such a prestigious honor. It is “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” which, despite its title, makes no pretense about connecting the evolution of contemporary music to anything as ordered and theoretical as a philosophy.

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” is Bob Dylan’s appreciative volume about some of the singers and songs that have influenced him.

This is something much more specific. It is a book of essays, organized around 66 songs, mostly by Americans, that Dylan has loved over the years. There’s a play list of all the songs on Apple Music and Spotify.

He has obviously spent his long years on the road listening deeply and closely to recordings of other musicians. Among them are mid-20th century classics by Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, and Rosemary Clooney, as well as lesser-known artists like Jimmy Wages and Sonny Burgess.

There’s even a section about the Ukrainian Jewish tailor Nuda Kotlyarenko, who came to this country, became Nudie Cohn, and made outrageous tailored clothing for some of the biggest names in show business. He created the gold suit Elvis Presley wore on one of his most famous album covers, as well as some of the more extravagant capes he wore during his performances at the International Hotel in Las Vegas. Dylan reminds us that Nudie frequently showed up on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry with a “10-gallon yarmulke.”

A complementary pairing for the Dylan book is D.A. Pennebaker’s cinéma verité documentary that followed Bob Dylan during a three-week concert tour of England in 1965. It is one of the best music documentaries ever made and it can be streamed or rented on at least a dozen sites online.

If you were thinking of spending some screen time in a theater, you will be hard-pressed during this holiday to find a film that surpasses “The Fabelmans.” It is Steven Spielberg’s masterful, semi-autobiographical account of growing up Jewish and his budding love affair with the movies.

There’s been no shortage of publicity for the film. From a “60 Minutes” profile by Leslie Stahl to a cover story in the current issue of Time Magazine, Spielberg has been beating the drum for his most personal creation. It’s arguably his most Jewish one, notwithstanding his Holocaust classic, “Schindler’s List,” which was, after all, as much about the evolution of a righteous gentile than it was about those Jews who owed their lives to him.

“The Fabelmans” offers insight into how Steven Spielberg produced and directed his first film.

Sadly, this latest Spielberg offering has yet to find much of an audience. Its debut during the recent Thanksgiving holiday brought in a paltry $3.1 million over five days. To complement this fictionalized account of his youth, have a look at Susan Lacy’s fascinating HBO documentary, “Spielberg” from 2017, which can be purchased, rented, or streamed on 17 sites. You can also read about him in Molly Haskell’s “Jewish Lives” biography from the Yale University Press.

In the spring of 2023, this AJT writer will discuss “Spielberg at 75,” in a four-part series for The Temple in Midtown.

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