Life’s last chapter, biopics and Jewish terrorists

Our film-going readers can look forward to an embarrassment of cinematic riches this summer, with an eclectic mix of movies promising something for almost everyone.

A few of the films will tear at your heartstrings.  Among these is “Lullaby,” which follows the journey of Jonathan (Garrett Hedlund), a 23-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter, estranged from his family, self-centered and rootless.  We meet him as he flies from California to New York to join his mother (Anne Archer) and sister (Jessica Brown Findlay) at the hospital bedside of his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins), who has been battling cancer for more than a decade.  Upon arriving, Jonathan learns that his father has decided to have his life support disconnected.

“I was particularly interested in right-to-die,” filmmaker Andrew Levitas said, “right to die with dignity, and just curious about, or investigating, the ways that people talk or don’t talk, in our culture, about death.”

Levitas said Jonathan has been stunted in many ways ever since he was 13, when his father was told he had six months to live. “He sort of became frozen in time, in sort of an emotional suspended animation. And we actually see the moment in flashback when that happens.”

But the intense experience that occurs over less than two days with his father forces Jonathan, who also befriends a terminally ill 17-year-old girl at the hospital, to undergo a delayed coming-of-age, as the walls he has built around himself come crumbling down.

Robert also prompts Jonathan to reconnect with his Jewish roots, as the dying man insists on holding a seder, even though Passover is a week away. Levitas said he used the Passover celebration to represent multiple religions. “It wasn’t so much about it being Jewish, although that was incredibly important to me as an individual; it was meant to be more of a universal stand-in for religion.  And that’s why they’re doing a seder, but they’re doing it in a chapel, doing it basically in a church, and they’re doing it below a stained-glass window of ‘The Last Supper.’ It was really playing off that thing because, ultimately, we’re all the same.  We’re all going to the same place.”  

As “a Jew from New York City,” Levitas said, certain values were instilled in him and are expressed in his film, including a reverence for life, as well as an understanding and appreciation of progeny, of generations.

“Jonathan’s character, at first, doesn’t necessarily appreciate his place in the line of life, of generations,” he said. “I think that, culturally, there is something in this community, and Robert absolutely subscribes to this, and it is that he will live on through his son, and his son will live on through his son, and so on and so forth. There is a continuation of the same life that is expressed in different ways. And one of the reasons Robert is not scared of death is that he knows that he’s not really going anywhere. Many cultures certainly do this, but I think in Judaism there’s a particular understanding, because of the history, of this continuation of life.”

“Lullaby” opens June 13. 

A different take on the last chapter of life is expressed in the documentary “Next Year Jerusalem,” which follows eight residents of the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Connecticut — all in their 80s and 90s and most with some form of disability — as they go on a pilgrimage to Israel. We see them on the plane and traveling by bus throughout the country, visiting key sites, such as the Western Wall, and even floating in the Dead Sea.  

Helen Downs, age 91, floats in the Dead Sea, in “Next Year Jerusalem.” Photo courtesy of First Run Features

Filmmaker David Gaynes said his father, who was the ophthalmologist for the home, encouraged him to volunteer at the facility.

In 2002, Gaynes made a short film about five of the residents and their thoughts on mortality. That led to his being commissioned to make “Jerusalem.”

Gaynes said he is particularly interested in exploring the choice that we have at any point to live our lives deeply and richly. “I think that exploring the lives of people who are elderly provides an incredible opportunity for that kind of reflection, because you’re working with people who are at the end of their lives.  And I loved interviewing people who are in their senior years, because there’s so little pretense to their point of view, and they really spell things out bluntly at that age.  So, to make a film that was a metaphor for choosing life at the end of life, I felt that this was a great subject to dive into and explore.” 

Gaynes, who is Jewish, said he also wanted to explore Israel, to make aliyah, in a sense, but realized when he got home that he had spent most of his time filming others and really hadn’t had much time to connect with his Judaism on the trip.  Soon, however, his outlook changed, and he felt he had been part of something sacred.

“In fact, it was how I want to live my Judaism in the deepest possible sense, which was that documenting and observing the magic that these people experienced was a holy thing and a sacred responsibility, really. 

“My theology as a Jew is basically one thing, and that’s tikkun olam. And so, if I could present a thesis in this film that was of use to other people, that honored the people who were in the film, and that did justice to what happened in Israel that was truly holy, that was my Jewish experience in Israel. That was my aliyah, and that was my connection.”

“Next Year Jerusalem” opens May 30.

There will also be a slew of biopics this summer.  One of them, “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon,” marks the directorial debut of actor Mike Myers.  The film chronicles the varied career of a Hollywood talent manager. 

Shep Gordon in “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.” Photo courtesy of Radius TWC

After graduating college in New York, Shep Gordon moved to Los Angeles and the famous Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where he hung out with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. At one point, Hendrix asked Gordon if he was Jewish, and when Gordon said he was, Hendrix told him he should be a manager. When asked in a recent interview if he took offense at the ethnic stereotype, Gordon replied, “It didn’t feel like it came out of any negative stereotyping. It was, in fact, really true. At every studio, there was a Jewish guy; every agent was basically Jewish. It was a reality.”  

Gordon followed Hendrix’s advice and soon launched the career of Alice Cooper, who remains one of his closest friends. The fledgling manager established Alive Enterprises and, over the years, has guided such disparate performers as Anne Murray, Ben Vereen, Raquel Welch, Groucho Marx, Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, The Pointer Sisters and numerous others. In the mid-1970s, he took his company into motion picture production. 

Gordon is also known for having created the concept of the celebrity chef. He said that venture started in the mid-1980s, when client Kenny Loggins was appearing at a Nissan convention in Hawaii where Wolfgang Puck did the dinner.

“Kenny Loggins got a lot of money for doing that show,” Gordon recalled.  “Wolfgang Puck got nothing but a couple of airplane tickets. There were 50 people waiting to get an autograph from Kenny — there were 300 waiting to get an autograph from Wolfgang.

“When I was looking for a way to help the chefs, it was obvious to me they were gigantic celebrities, but no one had ever monetized them or called them celebrities.”

Among the chefs Gordon has managed, in addition to Puck, are Roger Vergé, Alice Waters, Charlie Trotter, Nobu Matsuhisa and Emeril Lagasse. 

Gordon added that cooking was a large part of his family’s life as he was growing up, and he learned to make Jewish dishes from his grandmother. He feels that his Jewish roots have been a big influence in his life.

“I was brought up in a culturally observant, but not religious home. We did belong to a temple. I was bar mitzvahed, but I learned my bar mitzvah [prayers] phonetically. I still to this day go to the High Holy Days [services].  I’m a member of the congregation in Maui. We all got together and bought a house, and got a rabbi, and got one of the Torahs out of England that were reconstituted, the German ones. We have a wonderful rabbi and a really nice community, and a Hebrew school. It’s really nice.”

He continued, “When I meet a Jew, I feel like I’ve met part of my family. The exhilaration of having Jewish food is remarkable. I took Alice Cooper, who’s a devout Christian, to Kutsher’s in New York for Passover seder. But it also makes me feel so good to make a matzah ball. I sort of channel my grandmother.  

“I have a family in Israel. I feel like I have a place on the planet as a part of a larger community.”

“Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” opens June 6.

Music and musicians also figure prominently in the documentary “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step,” about noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who was also a political journalist focused on issues surrounding the U.S. Constitution and civil liberties. 

Nat Hentoff and clarinetist Edmond Hall at the Savoy Club, Boston, November 1948, in “The Pleasures of Being Out of Step.” Photo by Bob Parent, courtesy of First Run Features

Hentoff wrote for the Village Voice and other alternative papers, as well as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Playboy and a host of other publications.  He also authored several books of fiction and nonfiction. 

The film is permeated with the sound of such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, to name just a few.  In the movie, Hentoff talks of jazz as the epitome of free expression, and his affinity for the musical genre dovetailed with his interest in the Bill of Rights.  

The jazz world was largely populated by African-American talents, and Hentoff became a staunch civil rights advocate. He caused some controversy in the late 1970s, when, even though he is Jewish, he defended the First Amendment right of Nazis to march in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, which had a large Jewish population, including numerous Holocaust survivors.

But he began to seriously alienate his progressive friends because of his perceived disinterest in the feminist and gay rights movements. When Hentoff came out against abortion rights, many of his closest cohorts broke with him irrevocably, and some of them explain their feelings in the film. However, Hentoff has not wavered.

“The Pleasures of Being Out of Step” opens July 4.

Another champion of civil liberties, although in a different context, and of civil disobedience, was computer genius Aaron Swartz.  His complex, tragic story is told in the documentary “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.” Swartz, who had been a child prodigy, became an activist bent on providing free Internet access to public domain documents, such as court records and scientific journals, for which distributors charged a fee.  

Aaron Swartz in “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.”

While a research fellow at Harvard, Swartz downloaded a huge number of articles from the academic database JSTOR.  When the university and JSTOR tried to block his access, Swartz connected his laptop to the network in a closet that was off limits and continued to download the data. Eventually, the Secret Service arrested Swartz, charging him with breaking and entering for the purpose of committing a felony. His initial indictment specified four felonies: computer fraud, wire fraud, recklessly damaging a computer and theft of information from a computer.

Ultimately, the Department  of Justice took over the case and charged Swartz with 13 counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, which carried a potential penalty of up to 50 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

On Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.  He was 26.

Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who details the Justice Department’s aggressive campaign against Swartz, is quoted in the production notes as saying, “Aaron’s story reached far beyond the Internet communities in which he was a celebrity. It also struck a chord with people who were outraged about government overreach, both technological and in our criminal justice system.”

“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” opens June 27.

Burt Shavitz, the face on the label of Burt’s Bees products, a line of natural beauty and health care items, is also an unconventional figure. Shavitz is profiled in “Burt’s Buzz,” by filmmaker Jody Shapiro, and says of himself at the beginning of the documentary, “My life has been evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Things just took one day at a time, and everything worked out.”

Burt Shavitz in “Burt’s Buzz.”

Shavitz, born in Manhattan, went from college into the Army and then became a successful photojournalist and a regular contributor to Life and Time magazines. He photographed street scenes, protest demonstrations, the March on Washington, and such figures as Malcolm X and President John F. Kennedy.  

After meeting a beekeeper in the Hudson River Valley who became his mentor, Shavitz eventually moved to a farm in Maine and took up beekeeping himself.  He lived a spartan life in a wood-frame dwelling with no electricity or hot water and sold honey by the roadside.

Then he began a relationship with Roxanne Quimby, a struggling single mother, and the two started making candles and other products out of beeswax.  The venture succeeded, and they moved the enterprise to North Carolina. Their partnership ended when she pressured him to sell his interest in the company to her. Quimby ultimately sold the company to Clorox for $300 million.

Although Shavitz never saw any profit from the sale, he got a contract with the new company to become the spokesperson for the line, and Shapiro filmed him on a tour in Taiwan being welcomed by reporters and adoring customers.

Now retired, Shavitz still lives simply on his land in Maine.  He harbors no bitterness and insists he enjoys being close to nature and has everything he needs.

“Burt’s Buzz” opens June 6.

Combining a biopic with an exposé, director Joe Berlinger, who is Jewish, tells the story of Irish mobster James “Whitey” Bulger, who ran South Boston’s Winter Hill Gang for more than two decades, in the documentary “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.”

Mugshot of James “Whitey” Bulger at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. From the film “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

After 16 years on the run, Bulger was finally arrested in Santa Monica in 2013  and was tried in federal court on charges that included murder, racketeering, extortion and drug dealing.

In addition to interviews with federal prosecutors, law enforcement officials, victims and victims’ families, the director includes footage of former Bulger associates who testify for the prosecution, as well as taped conversations between Bulger and his lawyers.

But the proceedings became mired in controversy when Bulger denied the FBI’s claims that he was an informant whose help was valuable enough to allow him to continue his illegal activities. Any exploration of the opposing positions was excluded from the trial proceedings. 

In the film’s press notes, Berlinger asks why, if Bulger was an informant, he was allowed to kill instead of being prosecuted, and, if he wasn’t, what kind of corruption the FBI was hiding. “The defense maintains that the story of his being an informant is a cover for the true story,” Berlinger says, “that Bulger was protected because of a personal pledge to protect a federal prosecutor from retaliation (and thus he was allowed to kill and extort countless victims); that Bulger paid off numerous corrupt FBI agents in exchange for information that gave him a competitive edge; that the Department of Justice knew about this behavior and quarantined the damage by making FBI Special Agent John Connolly the scapegoat.”

The director explains that the FBI may have made up tips and attributed them to Bulger in order to justify search warrants and wiretaps that helped convict members of the Italian mob in New England. “The Department of Justice does not want to undo those convictions, sully its reputation and admit civil liability to the many families whose loved ones got caught in the crossfire of our government’s decision to let killers operate with impunity in service of its national war on La Cosa Nostra.” 

As the film makes clear, in Bulger’s world it was acceptable to be a murderer, but to be a “rat” was to sink to the lowest possible depths. Berlinger doesn’t take sides on the conflicting allegations, but writes, “They deserve a fuller inquiry, as we must understand the price that society pays when the government gets into bed with murderers — not just by letting criminals kill with impunity but also by giving deals to murderers to walk the streets in exchange for testimony that may or may not be truthful.”

Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” opens June 27.

We move from American criminals and their reign of terror to Jewish political terrorists with the highly praised Israeli movie “Policeman.” The film focuses on Yaron (Yiftach Klein), leader of an elite team that belongs to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s anti-terrorism unit. Yaron is a loving, attentive husband and expectant father who treats his team members as brothers and displays deep concern for a member of his unit who is seriously ill.

But he is also a warrior. As his story unfolds, a second storyline depicts a band of self-proclaimed revolutionaries, young Jews who plan a violent action in protest over economic disparities in their country. When the protesters carry out their plan, Yaron and his team are called to the rescue.

Although filmmaker Nadav Lapid doesn’t endorse the terrorist activity in his movie, he said he wanted to depict on screen the class struggle that exists but is masked in modern Israeli society.

“In the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “when political terrorism rose in Western Europe, Israel was socialist, basically egalitarian. Today, Israel has one of the widest economic gaps in the Western world. An extremely narrow group of wealthy families owns national industries, which were privatized; the unions are weak and pale; [there is] a harsh capitalism, masked under the fake myth of Israeli solidarity and brotherhood.

 “This concept of the struggle from within, of class conflict, is repressed by the deeper Israeli taboo — the fundamental Jewish cohesion against the external enemy forever determined to destroy us,” Lapid said. “This idea that we are all Jews, members of one big family, always in [a] situation of alertness due to the permanent existential menace, defines us as a state and defines our values.  Under this myth, fake but very efficient, [a] few Jews exploited the majority of Jews and non-Jews over the years, preventing them from the basic human right, to hate [and to struggle against] the person who oppresses you, because we are all Jews, all brothers.”

“Policeman” opens June 13.


“Venus in Fur,” Roman Polanski’s latest effort, is about a writer-director who finds that an unlikely actress turns out to be perfect for the part of a dominatrix.  But, as he auditions her, his power wanes, while her power grows. Opens July 4.

“Magic in the Moonlight,” Woody Allen’s upcoming film. Little is known about this movie except that it takes place on the Riviera during the 1920s. Opens July 25.

“Korengal,” the follow-up to “Restrepo,” which depicted what battle is like for servicemen deployed at a dangerous outpost in Afghanistan. After the death of  filmmaker Tim Hetherington, his colleague, Sebastian Junger, used the same soldiers and crew to complete their vision, explaining in the press notes, “This film tries to help soldiers understand their own experience in combat, rather than communicate that experience to a civilian population.”  Opens June 13.

“The Kill Team,” another war documentary concerned with Afghanistan and a soldier’s dilemma over reporting atrocities committed by his comrades and risking their revenge or remaining silent and staying safe, but taking the chance of being implicated in their crimes. Opens Aug. 8.

“The Last Sentence,” a Swedish film about the real-life editor of a leading Swedish newspaper, who openly excoriated the Nazis and his own country’s tolerance toward Hitler. Opens June 20.

“Obvious Child,” a comedy about a young comedian who takes a life-changing step on Valentine’s Day after being dumped by her boyfriend and finding a new man who gets her pregnant. Opens June 6.

“Wish I Was Here,” directed by and starring Zach Braff, as a struggling actor who home-schools his two children and learns important lessons about himself in the process. Opens July 18. l

Calendar June 1 – August 30



You’ve seen the banners around the city and we’re here to confirm it: Israel’s favorite son is coming to Los Angeles. Following the triumphs and tribulations of Joseph (son of Jacob and Rachel), the musical is the collaborative effort of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, the production combines pop, country and rock with a good old-fashioned Torah tale. Starring Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo. Tue. 8 p.m. Through June 22. $32.25-$140.70. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 468-1770. ” target=”_blank”>



Ameoba Music sponsors an intimate performance by one of our favorite Reggae Jews. Matisyahu’s most recent artistic exploration — his fifth studio album, “Akeda” — deals with love, humility, humanity, struggle and sacrifice. The musician, whose hits include “Jerusalem,” “One Day” and “King Without a Crown,” always brings a moving sound to moving topics. The program also includes a moderated discussion with vice president of the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares, Scott Goldman. Wed. 8 p.m. $20. The Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 765-6800. FRI | JUN 6


Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) is an aspiring comedian in New York, and if that doesn’t sound tricky enough, she’s newly pregnant after a one-night-stand with a surprising suitor. Caught up in the ruckus of her mid-20s, Donna must grow up without growing old. In the film, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, Slate delivers a sweet, sassy, totally funny performance. Also starring Richard Kind and Gaby Hoffman, the ensemble is  as impressive as a cast as the characters are supportive of Donna. Fri. Various theaters and times. Check local listings. 

THU | JUN 12


Check out Israeli documentary film director Shaul Schwarz’s first feature. Schwarz, who is also a cinematographer, award-winning photographer, and contributor to Time magazine and National Geographic, follows a specific story that can’t help but be universal. Contemporary Mexican folk saints, or “Narco Saints,” are virtually patrons of illegal acts. Responsible for drug ballads that glorify and celebrate narcotics, money and violence, these Narco Saints contribute to the mainstreaming and romanticizing of bein’ bad — a cultural instinct that never seems to go away. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Fowler Museum, North Campus of UCLA, Los Angeles. (310) 825-4361. FRI | JUN 13


Good news for those who have been waiting for Mike Myers’ directorial debut. It’s here! Documenting the stellar career of music manager Shep Gordon, Myers leads audience members through a life where Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are your friends, and Alice Cooper, Emeril Lagasse and Pink Floyd are your clients. If you miss the ’70s, or just love them from afar, you’ll enjoy the great archival footage and even better stories. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (seniors, ages 11 and under, bargain matinee). Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd, Encino. (310) 478-3836. SAT | JUN 14


There’s really no one way to capture what life in Israel is like. This exhibit, which debuted in New York, features artists who use photography, video, sculpture and work on paper as a way to tap into the complexities and multiplicities of Israeli identity. Artists Inbal Abergil, Anisa Ashkar, Luciana Kaplun, Aim Luski, Ido Michaeli and Rosee Rosen will be represented at the gallery — as will their takes on Israeli culture, politics and nationalities. Sat. 7 p.m. (opening ceremony). Through Aug. 2. Free. Shulamit Gallery, 17 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. (310) 281-0961. ” target=”_blank”>

MON | JUN 16


Happy 90th birthday, Theodore Bikel! Touting a career that includes the roles of Tevye and Captain von Trapp on Broadway, an Oscar-nominated performance in “The Defiant Ones” and co-founding the Newport Folk Festival, Bikel reminds us that life should be filled to the brim. Ed Asner will serve as master of ceremonies for this musical tribute featuring Arlo Guthrie, Cantor Alberto Mizrachi, Craig Taubman and many others. Mon. 7:30 p.m. $29.45-$203.85. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 655-0111.

SUN | JUN 22


A little summer piano never hurt anyone, especially when there’s talent like Schlosberg’s. With favorable reviews from both the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, the former soloist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will play Bach, Debussy and a West Coast premiere of Augusta Read Thomas. In 2000 he was the recipient of the Leonard Bernstein Fellowship in piano at Tanglewood, and today, you can hear why. Sun. 6 p.m. Free. Bing Theater, LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6234. FRI | JUN 27


In the world of new, fresh-faced artistic renovators, Schrag does not disappoint. Already established as an autobiographical cartoonist and writer for shows such as “The L Word” and “How To Make It In America,” the California native has a debut novel that is not only insightfully funny but hugely relevant. “Adam” tells the story of a young man caught up in frank and progressive New York City, where gay marriage demonstrations and transgender rights leave plenty of room for an awkward teenager to learn about love and lies, and the stuff in between. Fri. 7:30 p.m. Free. Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 660-1175. SAT | JUN 28


Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” took his radio show to television, and is now bringing it to the stage. At the core is storytelling: mostly true stories of real people, centered around one theme. Joining Glass’ aural contributions are dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass, bringing audiences a sort of radio narrative cabaret. Whether you feel your radio-listening needs more movement or your dance-viewing could use more spoken word, this performance will inspire a new appreciation for what can happen on a stage. Sat. 10 p.m. $38.15-$78.10. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310)450-5183. THU | JUL 10


Joan Rivers is at it again, thank goodness. Following her New York Times best-seller, “I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me,” this book found its footing when Rivers’ daughter Melissa gave her a diary for a gift. Feeling the pressure — many famous people have published diaries — Rivers has certainly pulled out all the stops. Sometimes it’s insights on everyday life, and other times it’s an anecdote only a diva could dish. Regardless, it’s Joan. Thu. 6:30 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0270. ” target=”_blank”>

WED | JUL 16


In her new memoir, “I Said Yes to Everything,” the Academy Award winner chronicles a life filled with just as much drama onscreen as off. Starring in such films as “Valley of the Dolls” and “Shampoo,” Grant refused to testify against her husband Arnold Manoff before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, which then  put her on the Hollywood blacklist for 12 years. But Grant didn’t let a little politics get her down. After success as an actress, she made a name for herself as a director of both stage and screen, eventually becoming the first woman to win the Director’s Guild of America Award. Channel your inner Grant and say yes to this book. Wed. 7 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0270. SAT | JUL 26


Put on your Hora shoes and grab a partner! The Music Center and Grand Park partner up with the Dizzy Feet Foundation, an organization co-founded by renowned artist and dancer Adam Shankman, for the West Coast’s flagship celebration of National Dance Day. Experts and amateurs alike are invited to join in the hoopla — learning from esteemed dance companies and viewing a dance film screening after sunset. Maybe you’ll choose to hip hop, maybe you’ll choose to tap; but definitely choose to dance. Sat. 10 a.m. Free. Grand Park, 227 N. Spring St., Los Angeles. (213) 972-8080. TUE | AUG 12


If you didn’t make it to Sochi this past winter, don’t panic. Conductor Leonard Slatkin is bringing an all-Russian musical program to Hollywood. Slatkin, the music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and a tenured music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, will lead the L.A. Philharmonic in Glinka, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov. Violinist Gil Shaham, recipient of the 2008 Avery Fisher Award, will be featured. It will be an evening of colorful, rich drama — Russian to the core. Tue. 8 p.m. $11.10-$118.10. The Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (323) 850-2000. SUN | AUG 17


Front-man Adam Duritz and the rest of the gang are flying in for a little song and nostalgia. Whether you experienced their hits in real time during the ’90s or are fans after the fact, the upbeat rock band can guarantee a funky rhythm and clever lyrics. Hits include “Mr. Jones,” “Accidentally in Love” from the movie “Shrek” and that fun cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” Sun. 7 p.m. $35-$75. The Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 665-5857.

Fusing ritual and theater

In Encino, seven actors move across the scuffed hardwood floor of a gymnasium. It’s after 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and this is only the third rehearsal for the play “Tefillah or Prayer: A Transition.”

Paul Vroom, a middle-aged actor sporting camouflage shorts and a goatee, plays a Jewish prisoner in the Terezin work camp waiting to be taken to Auschwitz. He addresses the other six actors, who are tightly huddled together. “How do we close the distance between here and there, between this place and life?” he wonders aloud.

The play’s writer and director, Aaron Henne, is also the artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, an experimental theater group that also partnered with Valley Beth Shalom a year ago on the work “Vessels,” about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Henne repositions the actors, paying attention to their body language as much as to the lines they deliver. In one scene, they hold memorial candles, slowly waving them in front of their faces and across their chests, tracing the contours of their bodies. “Blessed are you who made me,” the actors repeat. 

The flickering light illuminates them, yet the movements seem disconnected. It suggests that they haven’t internalized the meaning of their prayers, thanking God for creating their bodies. Their actions and speech are at odds with one another, creating a powerful sense of tension.

“Pay attention to your physical actions,” Henne tells the actors. “That’s what’s going to make this a journey the audience will want to go on.”

A previous Theatre Dybbuk performance, “Cave … A Dance for Lilith,” was co-produced with the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company in 2012. “I’m a huge believer in the vocabulary of movement,” Henne said. “It’s a vocabulary as much as language is, and it communicates as much as language does.”

Theatre Dybbuk performs new works that are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition, myth and history. It draws its name from a demon that, according to Jewish folklore, possesses the body of a living person and takes control of that person’s behavior, a reference, perhaps, to how a character takes over the body of an actor.

Not all of the company is Jewish, however, including Julie Lockhart, who sees her involvement in the play as an opportunity to explore a faith outside her own. “As an actor, I have to investigate the role that I’m playing. Just like if I were a character in a Chekhov play,” she said.

Henne has worked with many of the actors on previous productions. A longtime member of the Los Angeles theater scene, he chooses his cast based on his familiarity with their work, not on whether they’re Jewish. “I’m not generally asking the question about their culture, religious heritage, background or spiritual beliefs,” Henne said. “I’m asking the question, are they the right performer and collaborator for the role?”

But the idea of using non-Jewish actors in a very Jewish-themed production gets to the heart of Theatre Dybbuk, Henne said. The mission of the group is to “illuminate the universal experience.” It’s theater from a Jewish perspective, but it is meant for everyone. The play will be performed in various sacred spaces, including synagogues in the San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood, as well as at The Pico Union Project (an interfaith cultural center) and an Episcopal church in San Gabriel.

The play combines prayer with poetry from various periods of history. Onstage, Lockhart looks at a candle in her hand as she recites this verse by Yiddish poet Peretz Markish, translated by Aaron Kramer:

From the Bug River, a ferocious blizzard blows,

wiping out every footstep with its lashing snows;

but on menorahs in the shuls of Bialystock,

like worn-out fiddles, they have hung their exile up.

Woven between the actor’s lines are passages from various prayer services, recited by Seth Ettinger, a student cantor at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “More people need to go ahead and explore how to bring theater into the service,” Ettinger said. “It’s not novel for Judaism. In biblical times, animal sacrifice was accompanied by a Levitical choir, and a massive band and orchestral arrangements. The Levites had five years of intense training to sing and play instruments perfectly.”

Theatre Dybbuk’s development process is unique. Henne casts the actors before he writes a script. He then meets with the actors, designers, a dramaturg or script consultant, scholars and clergy several times over the course of six months to a year. Each time, he brings more pages of the script and rewrites throughout the process. “These meetings make a huge difference,” Henne said. “They really do affect the shape of the piece.”

During rehearsals, scenes are rewritten and entire sections moved or dropped as needed. The actors treat the script as a living thing that can be altered and improved. “We all offer our ideas and input,” Vroom said. “You’re expected to bring something to the table.”

One of the script consultants is Andrea Hodos, a dancer and performance artist who also works with Jewish subject matter. “[Henne] was honestly interested in people’s responses to the work, with very little ego,” she said. “I was very impressed with his ability to take it in, synthesize it, and trust the people in the room.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom’s senior rabbi, has worked with Henne for about a year on this production. He said he wants artists to be in dialogue with the synagogue, to offer up their wisdom while also gaining something from examining Jewish traditions. 

“It seems to me that the Jewish community long ago tossed the artists out, and for that reason, we really lost our aesthetic. And I think it’s time to bring them home,” Feinstein said.

One of Henne’s challenges in this production was building a narrative out of a daily prayer service, which lacks the structure of a holiday service, such as a Passover seder. A typical prayer service is episodic, with each individual prayer disconnected from the others, Feinstein said, yet each prayer tells its own story.

One example is the Amidah, the silent devotional prayer. “The structure of the prayer represents the journey of the pilgrim in ancient times, from the countryside, say, to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to the Holy Temple, and then from the Holy Temple into the inner core of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Which parallels the journey of the pilgrim from the extremities and peripheries of life into the core of who we are,” Feinstein said. “There are literary cues in the text of the prayer book which suggest narratives that most people don’t know about.”

Henne said he’s fascinated by the intersection of theater and ritual, and the theatricality of prayer. “I begin with the idea that the siddur [prayer book], and the prayer itself, is a container for history,” Henne said, “that these prayers are our way of connecting to the past, quite literally. So that every time we sit down in a synagogue to pray, we are time traveling. We’re communing with our heritage and who we are.”

Ultimately, he wants the audience to see prayer and theater as similar — both efforts to transcend our individual selves and connect with those around us and the world at large. 

“This thing we call prayer is a universal experience of looking to reach beyond ourselves,” Henne said, adding that the same is true of theater. “We’re gathering together as a community to experience something for a reason. Let’s find out what that reason is.”

“Tefillah or Prayer: A Translation” will be performed June 22 at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, June 29 at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, July 6 at The Church of Our Saviour in San Gabriel, and July 12-13 at The Pico Union Project in Los Angeles. For more information, visit

Hans Zimmer: Proud to say ‘My people’

When Hans Zimmer stepped up to the podium during a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999 to discuss his score of “The Last Days,” a Holocaust documentary produced by the Shoah Foundation, he was asked why he chose to work on the movie.

And that’s when Zimmer revealed a family secret on German national television: The Zimmers are Jewish.

“As soon as I said it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ve outed my mother,’ ” Zimmer recalled in a recent phone interview. “I couldn’t wait for this press conference to finish, and I got to the phone, and I phoned her in Munich.”

Filled with anxiety and guilt, Zimmer relayed to his mother what he had done, then listened as she paused for a moment, and then told him, “I’m very proud of you.”

“I think that was the only time she said, ‘I’m very proud of you,’ ” Zimmer joked. 

Regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished film composers, Zimmer, 56, has written music for more than 100 movies and has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, nine Grammys and 11 Golden Globes. He won an Oscar in 1995 for best musical score for “The Lion King,” and his music can be heard in such classics as “The Prince of Egypt,” “Gladiator,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight” and this year’s best picture-winner, “12 Years a Slave.” 

On July 16, the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (AFIPO) will honor Zimmer with a lifetime achievement award at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. Zubin Mehta will conduct, as members of the orchestra perform some of Zimmer’s most memorable works.

Zimmer has certainly come a long way since his days living in Frankfurt and London, when he felt ambivalent, even uncomfortable, about being Jewish. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in post-World War II Germany only made his identity harder for him to grapple with. Zimmer’s father died when he was a young boy, and his mother rarely discussed her Jewish roots. He knows she escaped Germany in 1939 and survived the war in England, but her silence about the family religion led him to feel that it was, in a way, their secret.

“Quite honestly, I think my parents were always wary of me telling the neighbors,” Zimmer said. “There was always still that cloud, and I felt it.”

Today, living in Los Angeles with his wife and four children, Zimmer said he is thrilled to help the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in any way he can and hopes one day to travel to Israel to work on a film score (he doesn’t take vacations). Nowadays, he openly calls the Jews “my people.” 

In fact, Zimmer said one reason he was excited to accept AFIPO’s award was that he had hoped the event might be held in Israel, which would have given him an excuse to travel to the country his mother used to visit every year.

“Instead, they are all turning up for dinner at my house, pretty much,” Zimmer said, laughing. “I get to travel so much for these movies — sooner or later I’ll get there.”

Zimmer’s work has also brought him to some of the world’s top artistic landmarks — he got exclusive middle-of-the-night access to the Louvre in Paris for “The Da Vinci Code” and got the same treatment for Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture in Florence, Italy.

Speaking from his Viennese Renaissance-style Santa Monica recording studio, Zimmer said he was just coming out of a meeting. “Deadlines are a good thing,” he said, though he would not divulge what his next project is. Zimmer was, however, happy to discuss some of the more intimate aspects of working with so many stellar writers and directors.

“You are very vulnerable when you play a piece of music to somebody for the first time,” he confessed. “I’m hiding behind the inefficiency of words. I’m hiding behind my lack of speaking English properly,” Zimmer said in an accent that mixes his German, British and American roots.

“The true me, I can only be caught in my music. It’s the only time I let you see into me.”

Although it’s tough to choose a favorite from Zimmer’s vast filmography, millions of moviegoers would recognize Zimmer’s trademark mixture of classical orchestras and electronic music, most notably in his work with writer/director Christopher Nolan on “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” trilogy.

“I didn’t know we were making a trilogy,” Zimmer said of the latter series. “I don’t think Chris knew we were making a trilogy. We were just making ‘Batman Begins’ — it turned into nine years of our lives.”

“Inception,” meanwhile, revealed something that bothers Zimmer about Hollywood — a propensity to imitate effects audiences respond positively to, specifically the ominous-sounding “braaam” sound effect that popped up in one thriller after another following the release of “Inception” in 2010.

“Hopefully, going forward, I won’t sound anything like those movies again,” Zimmer said. “If other people still find it interesting to go and work in that style, let them. I think an audience will get bored with it.”

What Zimmer loves about Nolan and some of his other favorite directors (including Ron Howard, Steve McQueen and James L. Brooks) is their experimentation and their willingness to let Zimmer push the envelope, allowing him to be original with the music, which helps add a new layer to the story they want to tell.

“They are all fearless. They never stop searching; they never stop looking for the next idea,” Zimmer said. “They are all trying to illuminate the human condition.”

An attempt to get Zimmer to discuss his collaboration with Nolan on “Interstellar”— the sci-fi thriller starring Matthew McConaughey that is due out in November — went nowhere, with the composer apologetically saying he’s not allowed to utter a word. All Zimmer would say about Nolan is, “he encourages, probably, my most reckless behavior.”

Zimmer’s goal with his score, he said, is not necessarily to find the musical way of telling the film’s story — he has his own story to tell.

Take “The Lion King,” which Zimmer says he initially took on in order to impress his daughter, who was 6 at the time. He wanted “to show off as a dad and take her to the premiere” of what, on first glance, he thought was really just a film about “fuzzy animals.” As his work progressed, though, he realized he could see himself in Simba — both had lost their fathers when they were young.

“Really, the story is about a son losing his father,” Zimmer said. “And it was the first time I actually dealt with it.”

As majestic and perfectly fitting as so many of Zimmer’s scores sound, the creative process that gets him to the final product is anything but clean. When a filmmaker approaches Zimmer about a project, the composer does not want to read a script and create music from that — he wants to be told what the story is about. From there, it’s all uphill. 

“To be really honest, it’s just a lot of sitting around and bashing your head against the wall, and despair, and not knowing where it comes from and going through that whole process of, ‘Oh my God the notes will never [come],’ and then suddenly — they appear.”