Hello Again: Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer at 40

In previous articles on The Curb, I’ve spotlighted excellent films celebrating 40 year anniversaries this year: Breaker Morant, The Blues Brothers, Fame, and Somewhere in Time. But there’s a place at the table for mediocrity as well. This can be easy to forget in modern geek-driven film culture, where movies are either anointed canonical texts or branded with scarlet letters upon release, leaving little scope for a film to simply be amiably average. A decade ago, CHUD published a series of articles titled ‘Embracing Mediocrity’, where such agreeably bland features as Conan the Destroyer and Metro were given their due. I think it’s time to embrace the nuance of mediocrity again. Doctor Detroit, Mobsters, Point of No Return, Fierce Creatures, Escape Plan, Gangster Squad: we see and appreciate your earnest exertion and plasticity.[1]

The Jazz Singer is thoroughly, acceptably average. Mediocrity is not the film’s worst offence — I’ll touch on that later — but it’s certainly its most pervasive, and that’s just fine. Directed by Richard Fleischer and released in December 1980, this romantic musical drama is a remake of Alan Crosland’s 1927 film starring Al Jolson. Crosland’s film is best known as the first ‘talking picture’ — that is to say, the first feature film to employ synchronised dialogue and singing. That this sound innovation was used in service of minstrel performances is an aspect of the film that dates it quite poorly. However, I wager most contemporary punters who know of The Jazz Singer would recognise it second-hand via Singin’ in the Rain, in which it serves a plot point as the film that ushers in the sound era of motion pictures.

Like its source text, Fleischer’s film centres upon a Jewish cantor (Yussel/Jess, played by Neil Diamond) with aspirations to become a popular entertainer, much to the chagrin of his devout father (Laurence Olivier). When an opportunity arises to record an album in Los Angeles, Jess leaps at it, shunning his synagogue duties, and becomes romantically entangled with agent Molly Bell (Lucy Arnaz). Subsequently, he separates from his wife Rivka (Carlin Adams), is ostracised from his father, and endures an existential crisis of sorts, before eventually reuniting and starting a family with Molly, rekindling relations with his father, and finding fame as a musician. Whilst the aforementioned blackface of the original film is retained and used very briefly for ‘comic’ effect early in proceedings—if that seems outdated by 1980 standards, remember that C. Thomas Howell would pose as a black man to get into Harvard in Soul Man six years later—Fleischer’s film diverges in other respects, including the subplot of the titular performer separating from his wife and romancing his new collaborator.

The 1980s were a rough period for a number of classic Hollywood directors. John Huston weathered the decade well with Prizzi’s Honour and The Dead, but Stanley Donen — responsible for such celluloid darlings as Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, and Charade — delivered Saturn 3, in which Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett are menaced by Harvey Keitel in space (not as enjoyable as it sounds), and Blame it on Rio, in which Michael Caine has an affair with his best friend’s teenage daughter.

Richard Fleischer is no Stanley Donen, but a lot of directors would be happy being Richard Fleischer. Some of Fleischer’s notable credits include 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, The Vikings, Compulsion, The Boston Strangler, and Soylent Green: nothing there to sniff at. But he also delivered some stinkers, and the 80s was a rough (if moderately profitable) decade for Fleischer, with Amityville 3D, Conan the Destroyer,and Red Sonja following in the wake of The Jazz Singer’s critical drubbing. That drubbing included Razzie nominations for Worst Picture and Director and ‘wins’, so to speak, for Worst Actor and Supporting Actor (lest the Razzies be mistaken for a legitimate enterprise, Stanley Kubrick was also nominated that year for The Shining). But Fleischer was a late hire for The Jazz Singer: Sidney J. Furie, a director with a career of similarly eclectic quality — veering from the highs of The Ipcress File to the lows of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — was the original helmer, but was ignobly replaced mid-production.

I’m hesitant to add needlessly to the critical pile-on: The Jazz Singer is neither as bad as its detractors proclaim, nor a (Neil) diamond in the rough. It’s engaging, straight-down-the-middle mainstream entertainment: professionally executed, amiably average, and like A Star is Born — another entertainment industry yarn from the Hollywood Golden Age that’s similarly enjoyed several (much more successful) updates — its rags to riches formula, minus the latter’s downer ending, remains resilient. Connoisseurs of hammy acting (ironic given his Semitic role) can appreciate Laurence Olivier recycling his perplexingly Oscar-nominated Jewish accent from The Boys from Brazil for his less-perplexingly Razzie-winning performance here. The distinguished stage and screen actor delivers a performance of dubious merit, shorn of subtlety, but the results are enjoyable. Lucie Arnaz — daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and best known for co-starring in the former’s sitcom Here’s Lucy — is the most comfortable and natural of the three leads, and serves as a likeable romantic interest for Jess.

The Jazz Singer remains a curiosity as Diamond’s sole film performance essaying a character; he’d pop up again in subsequent films, but always playing Neil Diamond. After video game adaptations, the critical knives are often sharpest for popular music stars making the leap to film acting, as Diamond’s Razzie gong attests (not to mention Madonna’s multiple Razzies, including Worst Actress of the Century). Critics get a certain sadistic kick from seeing a music superstar flounder outside their comfort zone: see Give My Regards to Broad Street, Swept Away, Glitter, Crossroads, etc. For every Frank Sinatra or Elvis or Cher — or, more recently, Ice Cube or Justin Timberlake — who straddles music and movies like a boss, there are others that come across as leaden on film, despite possessing copious movie star qualities — good looks, charisma, stage presence — in spades in their day jobs. There’s some truth to the adage that most movie stars play variations on themselves to some degree, and many of the best performances by musicians onscreen — Eminem in 8 Mile, Prince in Purple Rain, Mick Jagger in Performance, David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Elvis in most of his roles — riff to some degree on their enigmatic music personas.

Diamond splits the difference. Playing a Jewish rock star, he’s not working radically outside his sphere of experience, but he’s tasked with essaying a character and an arc, and expressing flaws and vulnerability: things which don’t come naturally to performers who project confidence for a living. Producer Jerry Leider initiated the project as a vehicle for Diamond, betting he could achieve the same crossover success as Elvis or Barbara Streisand. But where Elvis and Babs — and Dolly Parton, who made a successful leap to film that year with the hit 9 to 5 — had a light touch and were allowed to have fun onscreen, the plot and role of Jess demand Diamond be just the opposite: heavy, morose, weighty.Overall, he gives a serviceable performance: a little stilted, but undeserving of the critical lambasting he received. And when he belts out ‘Love on the Rocks’ in his commanding rasp, or delivers the romantic ballad ‘Hello Again’ over the soundtrack, there’s little doubt why Diamond rocks his day job.

In his slam of The Jazz Singer, critic Roger Ebert called it a movie “about a man who is at least 20 years too old for such things to be happening to him,” and ridiculed Diamond’s character for “going through an adolescent crisis”. While Ebert is right that Jess’s rite of passage is somewhat belated, it’s by no means outside the realm of possibility. And it’s this trajectory that, despite the film’s engaging and kitsch veneer, gives The Jazz Singer a slightly troubling aftertaste, more so than its mediocrity or, remarkably, its minstrelsy.

You see, Hollywood messes us up. Hollywood can instil good values and moral fibre, but it can also sow troubling seeds. Hollywood movies can turn creeps into heroes (Scarface, American Beauty, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The Wolf of Wall Street… basically half the Scorsese catalogue) and heroes into creeps (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). They can scare us away from the beach (Jaws), the shower (Psycho), the American South (Deliverance), and fava beans (The Silence of the Lambs). They can glamorise the Klu Klux Klan (Birth of a Nation), rock ‘n’ roll suicide (A Star is Born), and anarchy (Fight Club), while making people sad they’re not blue aliens. They can perpetuate the vested interests of parties ranging from the military and intelligence services to the police to the occult elite, sometimes simultaneously. And Hollywood romances — seemingly innocuous on the surface — are societal wrecking balls.

Many romantic comedy classics are predicated on an amorality that’s seemingly mutually agreed upon in a silent pact between filmmaker and filmgoer: an unblinking, unspoken acceptance of dodgy behaviour — lying, cheating, betrayal, spying, stalking — sugar-coated and brushed off as Hollywood confection and convention, just part and parcel of the genre. Remember Sleepless in Seattle, when Meg Ryan breaks up with her fiancé Bill Pullman to meet Tom Hanks atop the Empire State Building? Or While You Were Sleeping, where Sandra Bullock lies her way into the lives of a comatose man’s (Peter Gallagher) family by pretending to be his fiancé, only to fall for his brother (Pullman again)? Or My Best Friend’s Wedding, where Julia Roberts does everything she can to destroy her ‘best’ friend’s (Dermot Mulroney) wedding?

Collateral damage and unethical behaviour are par the course for onscreen romance — both comedic and dramatic — which can only serve to naturalize and legitimize these behaviours offscreen. While it’s perhaps overreaching to link current cultural trends — high divorce rates, fewer marriages, widespread addictive consumption of pornography—to the covert amorality underpinning Hollywood romance, these flicks ultimately paint unrealistic portraits of true love that are unattainable for many couples, while simultaneously positing monogamy and fidelity — ‘for better or for poorer, in sickness and in health’ — as non-binding arrangements.

The Jazz Singer is cut from this cloth. While Jess is kind of a downer as a protagonist, as mentioned above the film’s resolution — unlike A Star is Born — is not. Jess undergoes an adolescent crisis, pursues fame, separates from his wife, drives his father to disown him (though lest we forget, he’s a middle aged man), sours on and rejects his new romantic interest, undergoes a dark night of the soul… and wins. Jess’s impulses and choices are rewarded, and he ends the film with a new partner, a child, his father’s approval, and musical success, singing ‘America’ in a shiny blue shirt before a rapt crowd. The Jazz Singer thus endorses Jess’s mid-life crisis as a winning proposition, in turn sanctioning mid-life crises, ditching long-term partners and upgrading to hipper models, jettisoning responsibility and tradition, and so on. Lest this seem an overreaction, I concede there’s nothing overtly odious about the film, and this sort of aspirational fare is pretty par the course for Hollywood … but, as suggested, that’s what makes it problematic and gently insidious…

Hey, I never said all the 40-year old films had to be this good

Director: Richard Fleischer, (Sidney J. Furie – uncredited)

Cast: Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, Lucie Arnaz

Writer: Herbert Baker, (based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, adaptation by Stephen H. Foreman)

[1] Editor’s note: The Curb has likely gained some notoriety for my bullish championing of Mac and Me and Welcome to Woop Woop, so I eagerly support the celebration of mediocrity.

BD Kooyman

Ben Kooyman lives, works, and writes in Canberra. Most of his collected writings can be found at https://downunderflixarchive.blogspot.com

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