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Our reviews of The Jazz Singer (1927) (Blu-ray) DigiBook (published February 7th, 2013), The Jazz Singer: Three-Disc Deluxe Edition (published November 8th, 2007), and Jerry Lewis as The Jazz Singer (published January 29th, 2012) are also available.
Bubba: Boom boom boom! I want more boom boom boom! I want more boom boom boom!
"Love on the rocks
It all sounded like a good idea at the time. Musical-Jews-in-Hollywood retreads were hot after the success of Barbra Streisand's A Star is Born, so it seemed like Neil Diamond in a remake of the very successful first "talkie" from 1926, The Jazz Singer, would be a "can't miss." Diamond would play the Al Jolsen role, and legendary stage and screen veteran Laurence Olivier would play his father. Oy vey and Oh Mammy! Someone was very wrong about this one. This is one DVD every Jewish child should fear—they may spin the dreidel this year and end up with the 25th Anniversary package.
Facts of the Case
Neil Diamond is a Jewish cantor (a religious singer) named Yussel Rabinovitch. He is married, and his father (Laurence Olivier, The Boys From Brazil) wants him to continue being the cantor at a local Jewish synagogue in New York City. But Yussel has dreams of making it big as a popular singer. He adopts the stage name of Jess Robin, and moonlights by getting gigs and writing songs for other groups. The film's first big musical moment has Jess performing with three black men in a black club, decked out in a fake Afro and with blackface on. Yes, it's as offensive as it sounds. Meant as a tribute to Al Jolsen's turn in blackface from the original movie, it sets the goofy tone for what is to come. Jess gets a chance to head out to Los Angeles for two weeks to help work on one of his songs, which someone else is recording. Despite protests from his father, he heads out there—and inside of two weeks ends up with a record deal, a new agent, and a girlfriend (Lucie Arnaz, Here's Lucy). He gets sucked in to the music biz, and both his marriage and his relationship with his father fall by the wayside as Jess begins to get noticed (as a middle-of-the-road rocker with a lot of flair and a taste for sequins). He's turning into the Jewish Elvis, and everybody from his old life is abandoning him. Can he reconcile his father's expectations with his new aspirations? Can he find a way to make it big and still keep his faith? Can anyone explain why this movie is called The Jazz Singer when the man is playing soft rock?
Neil Diamond was the first-ever recipient of the Razzie Award for Worst Acting for his role in this film. And the poor guy still has The Jazz Singer as his only movie appearance to date on his resume. He seems stiff as a board until he's behind a microphone or piano. He looks terrified to gaze in anyone's eyes, and resorts to staring at shirt buttons. We can't blame him entirely for what happened. Diamond had never acted before, and he was cast in a role wildly inappropriate for him. He was twenty years too old at thirty-nine for us to buy that he was having a hard time breaking away from his father and finding his own way. If we had a young man to root for the movie would have made sense, but from the start the character seems hopeless. He has the stink of loser all over him, and frankly so does the picture.
The production was troubled from the start. Sidney J. Furie (The Entity) was originally hired to direct this remake. He worked on the set for quite a while, and even got 48 hours of film in the can. Problem was he was letting people improvise and was rewriting the script daily. The studio had major problems with how his style would inflate the film's budget. So Furie was fired, and Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green) was brought in to save the movie as best he could. The first thing Fleischer wanted to do was reshoot all the scenes with Olivier, because they were terribly over-acted. He was cornered by the legendary actor and asked why this was happening, and Fleischer did the only thing he could do. He lied and told Olivier he hated the way his scenes were staged. He was walking on eggshells because the aged diva actor had already been almost sued for disparaging the movie in earshot of a New York reporter, calling it a piece of excrement.
Truly, Olivier was being kind about the movie. The plot is awful, the acting ranges from Neil's wooden delivery to Olivier's over-the-top antics, and nothing seems to hold anything together other than the music. Jess's journey is not very interesting. Stardom comes too easy at every turn, and everything feels staged. A couple of years later Purple Rain made a smart move when it allowed Prince and its stars to basically mine experiences from their own lives. Neil Diamond would be a great subject for that kind of biographical treatment, if only the studio had realized that his appeal lies in how down-to-earth he is. His band appears in here too, flailing right along side with him. Diamond needs a showcase where he can be as natural as he is on stage, but this movie isn't that vehicle.
Anchor Bay gives us a rotten, grainy transfer for this movie. Colors look off throughout, especially in the studio scenes, where the visual presentation is horrific. About the only sequences that look in good shape are the concert sequences, which at least have some dramatic colors to make it all look a little attractive. The commentary is by the producer, who endlessly wonders why the movie never took off. Dude…clue phone…and it's for you! About the best thing going on here is a pumped-up audio mix, which finally presents the movie with a full five speaker recording so we have some reason to purchase the DVD. You can chose from a full Dolby surround track, a DTS track, or a simple stereo mix. The music does sound amazing, I'll give it that. And what else are you on this ride for anyway?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a shame about The Jazz Singer, because I like Neil Diamond. He's a charismatic performer, and he's a hell of a lot better in concert than being subjected to Barry Manilow (who by all karmic rights should have been cast as the lead in this stinker). I will say the concert sequences are pretty damn good. Wherever the movie may stumble, it's hard not to get chills when Neil launches in to the big showpiece of "America." Four years before Purple Rain, but oddly enough the finale sequence of this film and the Prince project have the same lighting and cinematic approach. Wasn't the director of Purple Rain Jewish? The point is the concert sequences are where Diamond isn't in the rough. You can tell why he's a star when he's front of an audience performing a song. A previous release of this movie included a special feature where you could skip the plot and just watch the musical numbers. If only Anchor Bay had decided to do that with this version. It's no mystery as to what worked: the movie flopped in a matter of days upon its release, but the soundtrack went multi-platinum and still sells well. Who can't recall a time in the '80s when you were trapped in someone's Oldsmobile listening to "Love on the Rocks" or "America"? If you were alive during the decade, either your parents or your friends owned it and played it to death. Maybe it was even you who did that. It's okay to admit it, because now Neil Diamond is cool again, after all the hip filmmakers of the '90s decided to mine his back catalog for their film soundtracks.
I find it odd that a turkey like this is marketed as a "25th Anniversary Edition" DVD. Kinda like throwing a party because you lost the big game, or find yourself suddenly unemployed. Who do they think is going to buy this thing? Oh wait—Neil has a new album coming out right after this is released. And he's currently on a big world tour. I smell synergy! But if you're looking for that perfect Hanukkah gift for the Neil Diamond fan on your list this year, go with the soundtrack CD. Yet somehow the movie does have fans, and, bless them, at least they can pump the music up with this release.
Guilty! I have no son, and disown this DVD. We don't need to be reminded Neil Diamond was once the Jewish Elvis performing in black face. It's too damn painful. Sing me "Sweet Caroline," play "Love on the Rocks when your girl dumps you, but for all that is good and decent don't subject yourself to this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary With Producer Jerry Leider
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