By Liam Lacey
Aaron Wolf's documentary Restoring Tomorrow seems custom-made for Jewish film festivals, a celebratory tale of history, community, and a kind of resurrection. The star is the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Los Angeles landmark with a vast 135-foot high dome, inspired by the Roman Pantheon, once known as the Temple of the Stars.
Emblematic of old Hollywood, the temple was the house of worship for the first-generation of Jewish movie moguls — Universal's Carl Laemle, MGM's Louis B Mayer, the Warner Brothers — who helped finance its construction. The building embodies the ambitious, optimistic immigrant sensibility that Neal Gabler wrote about in his book, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. They embraced the American Dream, promoted assimilation and liked showing off. The Warner Brothers, rolling in profits from The Jazz Singer, financed giant murals of Jewish history by movie production designer Hugo Ballin. There's a Gothic cathedral-inspired rose window, mock marble columns, and a seating plan that mimics a movie palace.
Over the decades, the once-suburban neighbourhood has become part of central L.A. and the building became run-down. The congregation was forced to make a choice: Sell it (a Korean church was interested in the property) and relocate to the suburbs or raise tens of millions to bring it back to its former glories as a temple for a new generation of downtown Reform Jewish households.
The current lead rabbi, Steven Leger, a hip middle-aged author of books on grief and reconciling wealth and spirituality, put it on the line: If the temple was going to be sold to be a church, he was gone. Leger bluntly describes the temple as a factory for "making Jews." Part of the finishing process is giving back to the community: the Wilshire temple has a strong ecumenical history and provides social services, including meals and free dentistry, to the mostly Korean and Latino local community.
Under Leder’s guidance, the temple launched the ambitious restoration project. While Leder notes how tough fundraising was in the post-economic crash, the film is coy on who the donors were or how they were tapped for such largesse. A Hollywood Reporter article from 2012 identified numerous entertainment executives from DreamWorks, Warner Bros, Working Title, Roadshow, Relativity, Lionsgate, ICM and William Morris. In context, that makes the $150-million price tag a little easier to swallow: Think of it as the budget for one blockbuster comic book movie.
Overall, Restoring Tomorrow is an ordinary informative and congenial mix of archival footage and talking-head interviews in the service of an institutional promotion. But perhaps because this is about Hollywood, it’s also offered as a personal redemption story. Wolf, the grandson of one of the temple's rabbis, casts himself as an exemplary millennial, one who was disenchanted with organized religion and then found himself returning to the fold. That means a lot of shots of the director gazing soulfully at family photographs and home movies and musing about how he didn't think about the temple when he was in college in New York but eventually came to his senses. (I can so see this as a “based on a true story” Zach Braff feature).
Much of this feels disingenuous, free of any real wrestling with religious faith or any commitment beyond resuming his seat in the family pew. In one scene, in a conversation with his father, Wolf describes his new enthusiasm for the temple. His father wonders how others of his generation can be won over, without, you know, having to go and make a film about it.
The film also employs a hokey framing device with opening montage sequence shots of dilapidated churches and temples around the world with alarmed title cards declaring the decline in organized religion among the young. Near the end, he shows a corresponding montage images of synagogues, churches, mosques around the world which have been restored, as if to suggest the world is suddenly caught in a wave of religious restoration. The intent is apparently a brotherhood-of-man message, but it makes Restoring Tomorrow feel like an endorsement of restoring the Middle Ages.
Restoring Tomorrow concludes with Wilshire Boulevard Temple's grand re-opening in 2013, with musical guest Burt Bacharach, with an African-American gospel choir, singing “What the World Needs Now,” a suitably cheery ecumenical pop hymn.
Restoring Tomorrow. Written and directed by Aaron Wolf. Opens October 12 at Toronto’s Canada Square and Cineplex Empress Walk.