A mega-hyped remake of the famous 1927 Al Jolson movie, The Jazz Singer was doomed to derision before it even opened, in part because because reviewers love to diss singers who moonlight as actors. It didn’t help that the film’s producers cast the decidedly Gentile Laurence Olivier in the role of an Orthodox Jewish patriarch, despite mixed opinions about Olivier’s performance as a Jewish Nazi hunter in The Boys from Brazil (1978); the actor received an Oscar nomination for that picture but also received a nod from the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Viewed with fresh eyes, The Jazz Singer is a slickly produced mediocrity built around a nonperformance by a nonactor, but the pulpy story chugs along in a kitschy sort of way, and the tunes are memorable. In fact, three of Diamond’s biggest hits (“America,” “Hello Again,” “Love on the Rocks”) emerged from the film’s soundtrack, which enjoyed much more success than the film itself.
Modernizing the original movie’s story while still remaining so deeply rooted in traditions that the narrative feels hokey, The Jazz Singer follows Yussel Rabinovitch (Diamond), a charismatic young cantor at a New York City synagogue. Although outwardly following in the footsteps of his father, Cantor Rabinovitch (Olivier), Yussel longs to explore the secular side of music. After one too many arguments with his rigid father, Yussel leaves New York—and his wife, Rivka (Catlin Adams)—to become a wandering troubadour. Lots of brooding ensues, as does a romance between Jess Robin (the new name that Yussel adopts) and Los Angeles shiksa Molly Bell (Lucie Arnaz). Wanderlust eventually drives a wedge between Jess and Molly, so he hits the road once more, leading to the odd spectacle of a bearded Diamond wearing a cowboy hat and singing “You Are My Sunshine” in a redneck bar. Can Jess reconcile his new life with his old identity as Yussel? Can he repair the damage to his relationship with his father? Can he reunite with Molly? The answers to these questions are never in doubt, since the point of the 1980 Jazz Singer is to transpose Diamond’s crowd-pleasing persona from the radio to the screen.
In that regard, the movie is indeed the failure its grim initial reception might suggest; Diamond is false and stilted in nearly every scene, except when he’s onstage, and Olivier is hilariously miscast. The picture also has more than a few tonal catastrophes. Inexplicably, Diamond agreed to participate in a rock-era redux of the original movie’s blackface element. Yes, Diamond wearing an Afro and heavy makeup to pass as an African-American dude while croaking a rock song in a black nightclub is as horrific a spectacle as you can imagine. Similarly, when the filmmakers play “Hello Again” on the soundtrack during a reunion scene, the effect is so on-the-nose literal as to be comical. However, a sense of proportion is required when trying to assess The Jazz Singer. Compared to a pair of truly disastrous movie musicals released the same year—here’s looking at you, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu—Diamond’s movie is positively respectable. By any other measure, of course, The Jazz Singer doesn’t fare quite as well.
The Jazz Singer: FUNKY