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Jazz Singer - 25th Anniversary Edition, The

Starz / Anchor Bay // PG // October 18, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 18, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Some movies get such bad prerelease word-of-mouth that they're pretty much doomed before they're even out of the gate. Usually such films are quite bad, while others, the 1980 version of The Jazz Singer included, were on one hand almost asking for trouble yet aren't entirely deserving of their terrible reputation. No doubt spurred by the huge commercial success of Barbra Streisand's remake of A Star Is Born (1976), a third adaptation of Samuel Raphaelson's play, famously filmed before as the seminal early talkie starring Al Jolson, probably seemed like a good bet. Mainstream audiences had embraced the traditional Jewish family life depicted in the film of Fiddler on the Roof nine years before, while its streetwise New Yorker-becomes-a-pop star story faintly echoed Rocky (1976). Though far from a good movie, most of the blame heaped upon this Jazz Singer has been misdirected.

The film tries too hard to be hip and modern with a script that's actually wheezier than the straightforward 1952 version starring Danny Thomas. The screenplay is credited to Herbert Baker, a songwriter primarily associated with TV specials and Broadway shows. In Hollywood, Baker had written a couple of minor Martin & Lewis comedies, two awful Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin, and Mae West's final film, the alarmingly bad Sextette (1978). Baker's script for The Jazz Singer is generally faithful to the original story.

Yussel Rabinovitch (Neil Diamond), son of community's respected cantor (Laurence Olivier), finds his life among the conservative (but not Hassidic) Jews limiting, and wants to give his singer-songwriter career the shot it deserves. Despite the protestations of his wife, Rivka (Caitlin Adams, looking like Ed Norton's wife, Trixie), Yussel, adopting the stage name Jackie Robin, strikes out for Los Angeles, where friend Bubba (Franklyn Ajaye) has secured them a gig writing songs and providing back-up vocals for snotty British rock star Keith Lennox (Paul Nicholas). The job ends badly (in a scene perhaps inspired by the infamous Troggs tapes), but agent Molly Bell (Lucie Arnaz), recognizing Jackie's talent, becomes determined to help him find stardom. Meanwhile, back at the synagogue, Cantor Rabinovitch is losing patience with his wayward son.

The Jazz Singer was apparently something of a cursed production. The original director (Sidney J. Furie) and female lead were replaced well into production and both Diamond and Olivier created additional headaches for new director Richard Fleischer. Worst of all, shortly before the film was released, an unhappy Olivier was quoted at a restaurant telling friends, "That piss is shit."

Twenty-five years later, The Jazz Singer is still pretty bad, but not for the reasons usually mentioned. Critics at the time hated both Diamond, in what would be his only dramatic role, and Olivier, who by 1980 had gone to the well too many times playing frail but determined, thickly-accented Europeans. In fact, Diamond isn't all that bad: his performance is remote but not unnatural and he's not the stiff the way a lot of pop stars-turned-actors frequently are. Despite not looking anything alike, Diamond and Olivier in their scenes together come off reasonably well, and they have a natural chemistry. His only real fault is an utter lack of presence as screen actor. He may be charismatic onstage performing "Hello Again," but as a movie star he's very bland, and his shock of odd, wavy hair, mutton-chop sideburns, and blank, slightly wall-eyed stares don't help matters.

Olivier is overly precious, simultaneously trying to appear sanctimonious and cuddly, and though like Diamond he's saddled with an archly-written stereotype, he's not too bad, all things considered. Ironically, the actor's genuine frailty actually works for the character -- as opposed to, say, his feeble Zeus in Clash of the Titans, with Olivier playing a God of Gods in desperate need of a walker. Ultimately, if Diamond and Olivier had delivered the same performances but had been complete unknowns, probably critics would have been much kinder than they were.

The real problem lies in the general corniness of the story which might have worked had the approach either been more realistic or more overtly one of a musical fantasy. As it is, Diamond, Olivier, and Arnaz (playing a Jean Arthur type for the second time following the equally disastrous Billy Jack Goes to Washington) appear in one embarrassing scene after another, from Diamond's blackface (yes, blackface) appearance at an African-American joint supporting Bubba's vocal group, to the succulent roast ham that shiksa Molly inadvertently tries to serve Jackie in a montage straight out of Here's Lucy.

(Spoilers) The screenwriters -- Stephen H. Foreman is credited with the "adaptation" -- seem unaware just how narcissistic both Jackie and Diamond appear playing a character who essentially abandons his wife, gets new girl Molly pregnant, then abandons her for almost a year so he can hitchhike across the country "finding himself." Though the film clearly and unhesitatingly is on Jackie's side, he still comes across as a big jerk.

Video & Audio

The film's shortcomings were of little consequence to Neil Diamond's fans, which were obviously there to watch Diamond perform the soundtrack's many hit songs, most of which remain fixtures of easy listening stations today. They will probably love this DVD, with Diamond's songs sounding great in three different mixes, 6.1 DTS-ES, Dolby Digital Surround EX, and 2.0 Dolby Surround. The image, 16:9 enhanced for 1.85:1 presentation, is much less impressive, filmed as it was in the ugly and grainy color so common to early '80s releases, but it's still a big improvement over Republic's 4:3 format DVD from 2000. There are no subtitle options.

Extra Features

For The Jazz Singer: 25th Anniversary Edition, Anchor Bay has included a smattering of extras. A Commentary with Producer Jerry Leider (My Favorite Martian) is nice, but where are Neil Diamond, Lucie Arnaz, and Richard Fleischer, among others? A Trailer is also 16:9, complete with narration and text, and includes shots not in the film. There's an odd 30-second TV Spot, a short but nicely reproduced Poster & Still Gallery, and Richard Harland Smith has contributed another thorough round of Talent Bios.

Parting Thoughts

Unless you're a hard-core fan of Neil Diamond, The Jazz Singer is a film you go into expecting it to be awful, then are simultaneously disappointed and pleased to discover that it doesn't live up (down?) to its reputation. In the final analysis, The Jazz Singer isn't very good and overflows with hoary cliches, but it's also watchable and reasonably entertaining.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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