Wednesday, January 11, 2017

1980 Week: The Jazz Singer

          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 didnt 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


Anonymous said...

I love the blog and read it every day .... but this was the first time I had to leave a comment!

I don't think the original Jolson Jazz Singer had lost it's luster by 1980. If you'll think back, you'll remember that the 70s was obsessed with nostalgia for the 20s-30s-40s. If anything, the original Jazz Singer would've been held in higher esteem in the 80s than it would be today.

As for Olivier in Boys From Brazil -- that was a huge commercial success, and, Olivier got an Oscar nod for his role. So it could hardly have been met with critical opprobrium.

Love the blog and keep it up!

Eric Colin said...

It seems like every five years or so I go back to this and try to pull out some sort of kitsch charm to no avail - and yeah, that blackface scene is a brutal head in hands type of moment.

By Peter Hanson said...

Bob, fair point about the stature of the original Jazz Singer circa 1980; you're correct that the backlash stemming from the portrayal of race didn't kick in till later. Fixed that. Don't agree about Olivier, for reasons articulated in the revised first paragraph. Much was made about Olivier's slide into bad accents and over-acting toward the end of his career.