Serbian Five-String Serenade

Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Chris Houkal brings us another film in our Real Chicago series: Jill Godmilow’s The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago (1976). Godmilow follows members of The Popovich Brothers, a Chicago-based Serbian-American tamburitza band, as they slowly recover from the death of fellow band mate and brother, ‘Marko’ Popovich. After 50 years of providing Chicago’s Serbian-American community with traditional songs from their homeland, the brothers’ musical future was in serious jeopardy.

Popovich+Brothers+popovich250The key scene in Jill Godmilow’s The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago occurs about half way through the hour-long film. There’s a brief, maybe four second shot of a newspaper article entitled “The Melting Pot Theory is Dead.” Thanks to the pause button I was able – and surprised – to read that this was considered a positive development, at least according to writer Stephen Birmingham: “It seems to me that we are making and observing a profound, important, and refreshing change in our national consciousness.”

That change, it would seem, was the growing (circa 1976, the year this film was made) acceptance and even celebration of diverse groups, in contrast to the obsession-level, centuries-long American urge to make everyone the same. It’s hard to believe now, with the ubiquity of ethnic parades and national flags seen everywhere, that this need to convert others was ever an American preoccupation – which reminds us how far we’ve come. Godmilow’s The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago, which was filmed during this country’s bicentennial, is one such celebration of this “refreshing change in our national consciousness.”

Make no mistake: The Popovich Brothers are Serbian. But they’re equally American. Like many Serbian immigrants, the Popovich family came here around the turn of the twentieth century in search of jobs and a better life. And as we see from various shots of newspaper clippings trumpeting successful Serbian-Americans, many have made it here. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean they’ve completely given up their ties to the past. There’s a sense that Serbians, like many Eastern European immigrants, hold on dearly to their culture, especially music. Through their traditional Serbian songs, The Popovich Brothers provide fellow Serbian-Americans with a powerful connection to their past and, more importantly, one another.

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Sadly, just as Godmilow started filming, the music nearly stopped when Marko, the youngest Popovich brother died unexpectedly of a heart attack. There was serious doubt that the brothers would continue making music, something that would have been a terrible loss for Chicago’s Serbian community. Despite this, the brothers don’t wallow in Marko’s death – they’re eager to continue playing. Fortunately, a replacement prima player is found, and the shows go on. These live performances make up the bulk of the musical footage in the film.

Most of Godmilow’s film consists of The Popovich Brothers making music. Some of this music is heartbreaking and some is rousing; some is made at home amongst family and some in large public venues for hundreds of fans. No matter what the music is about or where it’s made, it always sounds big and it’s always moving. You get the sense that the brothers are channeling centuries of shared experience when they play, and that the audience is feeling it, as well.  By focusing on the traditional music and how it unites people, Godmilow makes a much stronger case for pro-cultural diversity than a proselytizing, browbeating film could. We find ourselves simply celebrating another culture celebrating its own culture, which is really kind of fun.


Despite the death of a second Popovich during filming (patriarch Nikola), The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago is an optimistic film. It celebrates tradition and diversity and seems hopeful that it will continue in the face of change. At one point Adam Popovich tells us he’s brought up his own children and grandchildren in traditional Serbian culture and music and doesn’t see the traditions ending any time soon. A member of the younger generation reminds us that, although things will change, that’s always been the case and it doesn’t necessarily mean change for the worse. Although this ‘change’ theme of Godmilow’s comes dangerously close to conflicting with her very own stricture to never make films that celebrate “the old ways,” The Popovich Brothers of South Chicago never devolves into mourning for a lost past. While Godmilow obviously hopes the traditions continue, her film is more about celebrating the present.

Author: Chris Houkal is completing his MS in Cinema Productions at DePaul University. This autumn he is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets. Here are some samples of his work on Vimeo.

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