The Jazz Singer (less jazz, more Diamond edition!)
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
Neil Diamond is a helluva performer, despite what your nifty, hep, cool friends may insist. He’s also a damn fine songwriter, in an occasionally obvious sort of way. Say what you will, there’s a reason his career has lasted nearly sixty years.
Neil Diamond is not, however, an actor!
His lone star turn, 1980’s The Jazz Singer is practically the reason the Razzie Awards exist… I’m not kidding. Like all previous iterations of the oft-told story, Neil is a young (well, pushing 40) Jewish Cantor, but all he really wants to do is write and sing his own music. Neil’s Yussef Rabinovitch (Jess Robin to his friends) is also happily married to a sweet girl he’s known all his life. It’s all pretty as a picture, except that the straight and narrow traditional life is not where Jess’s gotta be. He’s a born performer and all his friends know it, but his father, also a Cantor, strictly forbids it. Will he get his shot at stardom? Let’s watch and see! It’s pretty much that simple. Well, okay, not really…
…As exampled by Neil’s appearing in blackface within the first ten minutes of the movie! There’s an explanation for it in the film, as well as within the larger historical aspects concerning the Al Jolson classic of the same name, but one would like to assume society had moved a little bit beyond minstrel portrayals and goddamn blackface during the ensuing 53 years! Jess’s friend, Bubba, who is black, needs a last minute replacement for a show his band is playing and, since Jess wrote all the songs, it only makes sense for him to fill that role… in an afro and a black face. Doesn’t help that the patrons of the “Black Club” Jess is in catch wind to his being a “white boy” and a fight breaks out across the whole bar… for laughs.
Guh… anyway, Jess’s pal, Bubba then goes to Los Angeles to help record one of Neil’s songs and they need his help and he’s gotta be in LA by tomorrow or shit’ll hit the proverbial fan. Jess assures his sweet wife and weepy father that it’s just for a couple weeks and hits the road. When I say that his father’s weepy, I mean that weepy is his primary state of being.
Let’s talk for a second about Neil’s dad, Cantor Rabinovitch. As portrayed by the immensely talented, classically trained, Shakespeare directing, Academy Award winning Laurence Olivier, this character is… well, a caricature of the highest caliber. He sobs at the drop of a hat, blubbers out Yiddish phrases, removes his spectacles and dabs his eyes while generally telegraphing a really bad case of IBS. By all accounts, Olivier fairly despised the role, but not the reportedly hefty paycheck. No matter how one tries to approach it, the performance is total crap, and a wonder to behold.
Anyway, off to sunny(ish) Los Angeles. Jess is picked up from the airport by our plucky girl Friday, and future other woman, Molly, played pluckily by Lucie Arnaz (her parents are who you think they are,) and is shown the town. Arnaz, it should be noted, gives the most convincing and heartfelt performance in the movie. Jess shows a Billy Idol type punk rocker how to record the song he wrote…
Love On The Rocks
It’s a lovely ballad, but I’m not sure how anyone could see this sad little ballad and think, “PUNK ROCK!” Either way, Jess and Molly get the boot after he plays the song how he intended it to be played, but she assures him that, with a little more time, she can make him a star. Needless to say, this doesn’t go over too well back home. Molly literally fakes a stick-up with a bigwig producer, forces him to hear Jess’s music, but he’s gotta see our man live before he can make any decisions. No problem!
The wife shows up, drops a mumbled “the music or me” ultimatum, and then disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. Jess takes up with Molly and their falling in love montage is a sight to behold. They walk on the beach. She makes googoo eyes at him in the recording studio. He takes a bow and bonks his head on the microphone. They ride a goddamn bicycle built for two down the Venice Beach boardwalk. She makes him a delicious ham hock for dinner but, WHOOPS, he’s Jewish! Forehead slaps ensue. She covers her head and performs a traditional Jewish ceremony which, apparently, turns him on and leads to passionate lovemaking in front of a roaring fireplace. The camera fades from one lusty angle to… y’know, about a foot and a half to the right.
Everything’s going great for Jess! He’s got a contract, a new love and a growing audience… then Pop shows up. His son is living with a new woman! His son says, “My life is here!” Cantor Rabinovitch, in a fit of traditional passion, weeps like the world about to explode, rends his garments and storms out leaving Jess at the top of the stairs in a state of, what I can only assume is, disbelief (Neil isn’t great at showing us how he’s feeling.)
Thus we come to the shiftless drifter segment of our show. Jess, having been declared, for all intents and purposes, dead by his father in one of the film’s most quoted moments, (“I heff no son!”) gets in his car and drives off into the great, wide expanse of the American western desert. And so follows a more cornball montage than, perhaps, the previous montage! Jess’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and he just gets out and keeps a-walkin’. He hitches rides with truckers, strummin’ a guitar he got in some dusty shop, as his beard grows out and his sunglasses grow larger and a cigarette is never far from his downturned lips. As time passes, Jess acclimates to his new life as tumbling tumbleweed, but soon it’s time to face reality and… get a job playin’ classic country tunes at a cowboy bar! It is here that Bubba finally locates his long-lost soul brother and, basically, says, “Hey, so Molly was pregnant when you left and she gave birth to a baby boy and you’re a dad, so…”
Molly sits on a beach blanket, playing with her and Jess’s now, I’d say, five month old son. In the distance, a bearded, booted, sunglassed figure stands with his foot up on the railing, as if wondering what to do next. Because it’s Neil Diamond: Non-Actor, this action comes across as awkward. Because this is a movie that doesn’t take place in a real world, Molly takes him back with nary a slap or point of a finger. His record label takes him back. His friends take him back. This would all be so heartening to an audience member who didn’t know anything about human emotions.
Jess then flies to New York to make things right with Cantor Rabinovitch by surprising him at temple on Yom Kippur. It almost doesn’t work, until Jess shows Pop a photo of his grandson, who “looks just like your mother!” Before you ask, yes, Cantor Rabinovitch loses his shit again, but it almost works this time. It’s kinda touching.
Time for the reason we all started watching this movie in the first place: Neil Diamond’s big, bombastic, technicolor ode to immigrants and the nation that, most of the time, opens her arms freely to them. The movie, up to this point, has had nothing to do with immigrants, really, unless you count the fact that Pop’s accent is this as chunky pea soup. Nevertheless, the song is powerful, Neil’s blue sequined shirt packs a wallop and, by song’s end, the audience, including Pop, is on its feet!
This is a completely unbelievable million-to-one shot of a movie, and better for it. Had it starred anyone but Neil Diamond, I have reason to believe people would still remember it. Because it does star Neil Diamond, a man who appears shy, odd and strangely endearing in front of the camera unless he’s on a stage, there’s a fun staying power to the whole thing. I, for one, am glad that this lumpy little film has stuck around. It’s a mess. It’s a brown and beige mess. It’s a completely unbelievable story in every dumb thing our protagonist does, that would fuck up any other person’s life forever… doesn’t! The songs are all pretty good, though. Everything I’ve just said kinda makes me want to watch this dumb little movie again right now.