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The Jazz Singer

I vividly remember that in 1980 that you couldn’t escape Neil Diamond.

His first acting role was about to kick off with the remake of THE JAZZ SINGER and the soundtrack to the film was the hottest album (remember those?) on the market, selling over 5 million copies.

As Roger Ebert famously said at the time, it seems like everyone forgot that the original film of The Jazz Singer wasn’t very good to begin with. It IS famous as the first movie with sound to ever hit theatres.

Diamond stars as third generation NYC cantor Yussel (Jess) Rabinovitch, dreaming of success as a pop artist but bound by the traditions of his synagogue and his UBER traditional father. The elder Cantor is played by Laurence Olivier in one of his most over-the-top, what the hell was he thinking performances. And remember, I saw him in “The Betsy”.

When a pop star wants to record one of Jess’s songs, he jumps on a flight to LA and finds a taste of success. Will he go back to his wife Rivka Rabinovitch, whose just as fun as her name is short?

There aren’t a whole lot of surprises here, but if you’re a Diamond fan, there’s plenty to enjoy.

The good:

Luci Arnaz steals the movie as Molly Bell, Jess’s manager in LA. She’s the best actor on screen and steals every scene she’s in.

The music sequences are terrific for Diamond fans (yes I’m in that group). The recording session with “Love on the Rocks” has that same Streisand/Kristofferson feel as “A Star Is Born”. Jess’s return to Molly on the beach to the strains of “Hello Again” is terrific and I’ve always been a sucker for “Songs of Life” played over Jess’s search for himself on the road.

The bad:

Olivier is shockingly bad as senior Rabinovich. I think he thought he was in the Catskills delivering bad punch lines to the back row. Every emotion is BIG and his arc In the final moments is pretty goofy.

For some reason, the filmmakers decided they had to do a blackface sequence as tribute to the original Jolson film. It didn’t play well in 1980 and it’s really cringe worthy now. OOF.

The head scratching:

When I saw Diamond in the role in 1980, I thought he was okay. When I saw the film again the last twenty years, I thought he was a very bad actor. It was interesting watching it again and finding Diamond reserved but effective. Olivier was bad, Diamond was just inexperienced.

Olivier said that he made about ten films in a row in this era just for the money. He had tax issues and needed to make a bundle so he took every role. He’s one of the greatest actors of all time but called this performance in with total camp. It feels like he watched Tevye in “Fiddler On the Roof” one hundred times, hyped the stereotypes up to 1000, threw on some coke bottle glasses and said “Now I’m a Cantor”…….

I loved the sequence where Jess gets his first on stage gig in LA, as an opening act for a comedian. He’s there to play two songs but he’s got like a 40-piece orchestra behind him. The songs are great, the sequence is fun, but the scope of the gig is hilarious.

Of course, by the time Jess is playing to an appreciative crowd at the end of the film and belting out “America”, you’re all in as a Diamond fan.

If you aren’t a fan, I have no idea why you’d still be watching by that point, ten songs in!

THE JAZZ SINGER gets a nostalgic, Diamond-fan gilded B-.

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