My Top 60 Films - No 5: The Jazz Singer (1980)
OK- so let’s get this over with. Yes, this is the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer (1980), despite its very unfair reputation that it is a ‘turkey’ and one of the worst films ever made. It is one of my secret pleasures and will watch it when it regularly comes up on a channel like ‘True Movies’ and when it very rarely (never?) gets a screening in a cinema.
It also has something in common with the recent and excellent (despite playing around with the historical timelines) Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) in that both films started with a different creative team in place and both lost its initial directors. In The Jazz Singer’s case, the original director was Sidney J Furie (The Ipcress File (1965) and Lady Sings The Blues (1972)) but he left after creative differences (the usual excuse) and was replaced by the excellent Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Soylent Green (1973).)
So why do I like it so much? I think it’s because it has so much soul and heart in it, it covers a theme that I am interested in and it has the most glorious original soundtrack. There are also numerous delights in the film. Whether it is its opening to the pounding theme song ‘America’, the chemistry between Neil Diamond and Lucie Arnaz (daughter of comedienne Lucille Ball)- you cannot take your eyes of Arnaz whether that is in the iconic scene during ‘Love on the Rocks’ or when she meets her love rival for the first time, or the great rapport Diamond has with Franklyn Ajaye. I do regard it as a sheer delight.
Neil Diamond plays the Al Jolson role (The Jazz Singer -1927) but this time as Yussel Rabinovitch who is a Cantor at his New York Synagogue. He is controlled by his overarching father (Laurence Oliver) who insists that his role in life is to sing in the synagogue and to stay with his rather plain and conservative wife Rivka (Catlin Adams). But Yussel moonlights as aspiring singer Jess Robin with his band and especially his ‘top man’ Franklyn Ajaye.
The Jazz Singer plays tribute to the original Al Jolson version in one hilarious scene towards the beginning when he has to ‘black up’ to play in all black band-until that is someone in the club shouts out “hey that ain’t no brother, that’s a white boy!”- and a riot ensures- but even that is done in a light hearted manner.
The crux and central theme of the movie however is about how Jess has to decide between his faith and who he really is. He has real talent and wants to sing his own contemporary and modern soft rock songs that he writes to move people whilst his father and wife want him to sing to just honour God. The opportunity soon comes for him and his band to get a chance to make a demo in LA, and that is when the movie really takes off. There, despite protestations from his family, he meets Record Label PA Molly Bell (the incredible Arnaz) and as soon as they clap eyes on each other there is electricity in the air.
To my eyes and ears, one of the most iconic and moving scenes in modern film is when Britain’s own Paul Nicholas (Just Good Friends) slaughters one of Jess’ compositions and Jess goes in to play the song as he says it should be –a romantic ballad and not speed metal (“it’s too fast, you can’t hear the words”- is Jess’ complaint). That song was ‘Love on the Rocks’ – perhaps Neil Diamond’s finest song. Just watch that scene, as Diamond sings his classic and through the recording glass panel, watch Lucie Arnaz as she gives an acting masterclass just through her eyes and a felt smile. Needless to say, Jess, his band and Molly get sacked so have to go solo. Molly uses her charms to get Jess not one, but two chances to get a record deal and to give a concert -to become a star.
In between all of this, Molly and Jess fall in love, have a baby and his father and wife see that they are not only losing him but also perhaps to their faith. Eventually he gets his father (if not his wife) to realise that God made him to be the talented singer and songwriter that he is- and that you can be both faithful and be contemporary and relevant at the same time, which is a theme I am greatly interested in. The Jazz Singer culminates in a gig that Jess is the start and which against all odds thrills his father.
The movie is book ended by -‘America’ -that both starts the movie and ends it on an emotional high as Neil Diamond’s taking of his audience’s applause morphs into the movie’s silhouetted motif, with his arm outreached.
The movie’s soundtrack was a huge hit being his bestselling album in the States- selling over 5 million- and the film is rich in some great Diamond songs- apart from ‘America’ and ‘Love on the Rocks’, we are treated with ‘Hello Again’, ‘Amazed and Confused’ and the poignant ‘Songs of Life’.
It is the kind of movie you can put your feet up to on an afternoon when you just want to indulge yourself, be moved, and be swept away on a classic tale to a great and rich soundtrack of some of Neil Diamond’s best stuff.