All That Jazz Singer

Sunday, September 27, 2009
Some screenshots courtesy

I am absolutely powerless to stop myself from what I’m about to declare to the blogosphere. The movie “The Jazz Singer” is a classic.

Sure, you’re probably thinking…you mean the famous 1927 film, one of the world’s first “talkie” motion pictures, where Al Jolston sports blackface and croons “Mammy”?

Nope. I’m talking the 1980 version starring Neil Diamond. Yes, I said the 1980 version with Neil Diamond.

Yes, I do realize that this is a movie that was unapologetically panned. Among the many bullets it took, it was the first to ever win a “Razzie” award (Diamond himself won one for Worst Actor.) In his mean spirited review, Roger Ebert said, “there are so many things wrong with this movie that it threatens to become a list” and claimed that Diamond was too old for the part (Ebert for some odd delusional reason believed that he was supposed to be portraying an adolescent, not an adult man in his late 30s who was finally fulfilling one of his life dreams.) There’s at least one clip on YouTube that I know of that was posted for the sole purpose of poking fun at the film and collecting nasty comments. Even costar Lawrence Olivier was rumored to have disliked the film so much he refused to see it, called it a “piece of shit”, and was overheard at a restaurant spewing diatribe about the director, which was picked up by the tabloids (he subsequently wrote a long apology to co-director Richard Fleischer.)

To which I all say poppycock. This movie is a delight, and is certainly much better than many other films that starred a well-known singer (Madonna’s “Shanghai Surprise”, Phil Collins’ “Buster”, Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” and most of Elvis’ movies come to mind.) I should point out that I’ve never seen the Jolston original or the peculiar 1952 version that starred Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee. I’ve also only seen clips of the 1959 TV movie version starring Jerry Lewis, so I can’t compare it to any of these previous films, but Ebert can go stuff his mouth with jujus for all I care. In fact, I loved this film so much I watched it two nights in a row.

Diamond defended the movie, saying that the story of a man caught between following his dreams and obeying the wishes of his traditional father resonated with him. He stars as a Jewish cantor with the unfortunate name of Yussel Rabinovich (his stage name is the much more palatable Jess Robin.) Jess is married to his childhood sweetheart and sings in the synagogue to please his old school father, played by Lawrence Olivier. Unbeknownst to dear old dad, Jess has been writing music for some time for an African-American group that he is friends with, and one night he is talked into filling in and performing for a missing member, as long as he disguises himself as black.

Yes, Diamond does appear in blackface – albeit very briefly. He looks so ridiculous trying to pass himself off as African American that you can’t help but laugh. It isn’t lost on the audience, either – when a guy finally notices that he’s really white, all hell breaks loose and the quartet ends up in the clink. When Jess’ father comes to bail them out, he peers at Jess through his Coke-bottle glasses and asks, “It isn’t hard enough being a Jew?”

Jess is pretty much stuck in a stale marriage to Rivka (also known as Rivie), who we later learn has known Jess since childhood. They have little in common – Rivie thinks that being married to a cantor is the greatest thing since sliced bread, loves moping about in clothes that look like they came from Dustin Hoffman’s “Tootsie” wardrobe, and wants very little to do with Jess’ aspiring musical career. Jess gets a phone call from Bubba, a member of his musical group, who is now in L.A. Bubba has given a tape of Jess’ recordings to a man in the music industry, and a rock singer is now interested in recording a version of Jess’ song “Love on the Rocks.” He tries to talk Rivka into coming along, but she stubbornly refuses.

It’s while in L.A. that Jess’ whole life changes – he meets the spunky Molly, (played by Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball’s daughter) who becomes his manager and pulls strings that help his star on its ascent into showbiz fame. She also becomes his girlfriend after Rivka finally comes for a visit and despite watching Jess wow a large audience, decides being married to a music man is just not for her – unless he’s a cantor in a Brooklyn synagogue.

At this point I don’t want to give anything else away, although the movie’s plot is certainly predictable. It's not a perfect film by any means, and even I will admit some scenes are too melodramatic, such as when Lawrence Olivier is in such anguish over Jess' new life, he rips his shirt (well, if I were alone with Neil Diamond, I'd rip my shirt, too.) You have to remember, however, that the movie was made in 1980 – a time when most mainstream films didn’t splatter us with the “f” word and heavy nudity, so yes, there are some delightfully corny parts. One of my favorite moments is a cute montage showing Jess and Molly’s budding romance – a walk arm in arm along the beach, Molly mistakenly serving Jess a ham (a big no no!), them collaborating and making funny faces in the studio, and a ride on a tandem bicycle. The cynics on YouTube, of course, have posted it to poke fun out of this piece of early 80s cheese. I happened to find the sequence quite sweet.

But then again, I’m a Neil Diamond fan, and if you like the man and his music, then you will love this movie. Diamond wrote all of the music (except for the traditional Jewish songs, of course) that he performs in the film. The movie’s soundtrack sparked a few hits – “Hello Again”, “Love on the Rocks” and the “America.” The other songs are probably not among his strongest compositions, but they’re certainly enjoyable for fans: “Summerlove”, “Hey Louise”, “Songs of Life”, “Jerusalem”, and “You Baby!” If you are a fan, then the triumphant ending – with Diamond performing “America” in all his blinding blue and white sequened splendor – will make you want to get up and dance!

Despite the flak the movie took, it actually earned more at the box office than several other movies that went on to Oscar nominations, including “Raging Bull”, “The Elephant Man”, and “Tess.” The song "Love on the Rocks" was nominated that year at the Academy Awards for Best Original Song, but it lost to "Fame." For the life of me I can't figure out why the brilliant "America" wasn't nominated instead.

Sometimes, however, moviegoers don’t want heavy downer dramas or thought provoking films that present a moral lesson. Sometimes we just want to be entertained, and “The Jazz Singer” certainly did that for me. A nice story, good music, a happy ending…and Neil Diamond – what more could you ask for?


  1. Sounds like my kind of movie, actually - thanks for writing about it, it's going on my list for Christmas vacation (prime movie-watching time around here)

  2. Thanks, Lidian - it's perfect for holiday movie viewing.

  3. Seriously, who didn't rock out and get goosebumps while watching the "America" finale?

    I didn't understand the entire Jewish subtext as a kid, but I will always remember watching The Jazz Singer multiple times on HBO, just waiting for the big ending.


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