Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Jazz Singer (1980)

The Jewish Elvis gets to do his Elvis movie.

Who am I talking about? Well to quote Will Ferrell...


The Jazz Singer, a remake of the celebrated Al Jolson classic, is mawkish, overtly sentimental, daft and misjudged nonsense. It also has one of the most jaw droppingly offensive moments in cinema history in its opening scene which sees Diamond playing a gig, blacked up. Seriously. This shit happened, and was considered acceptable, in 1980. Look...

There's an argument it's a homage to original Jazz Singer Al Jolson, but frankly I don't buy it.

The Jazz Singer is in no way a good film - just look at Roger Ebert's now infamously catty and hilarious review - and yet, I can't help but feel a little warm to it.

It helps that I like Neil Diamond. I really do. I can't help it, I just like the man's music. Though it has been said if you ever hear me playing it on a loop the chances are I'm really depressed! The film is carried along by Diamond's music making it its main redeeming feature, which is odd when you realise the fault with the movie is Diamond himself. Away from the music, he's hopeless; he can't act and he's a good 20 years too old to play the character he is here. In fact he's probably at his most expressive in that extremely ill advised blacked up scene!

He's supported by a very fun turn from Lucie Arnaz (Lucille Ball and Desi's daughter) and a frail looking,' I'm here for the money dear hearts' Laurence Olivier as Diamond's strict Jewish father, adopting that Germanic accent he used previously in The Boys From Brazil and Marathon Man. There's also Franklyn Ajaye - coincidentally then known as 'The Jazz Comedian' -  as Diamond's black buddy Bubba, who is now perhaps more famous here in the UK for Stewart Lee ripping the piss out of him in his series Comedy Vehicle.

Speaking of the UK, as well as Olivier, there's also brief cameos from Paul Nicholas of Just Good Friends ('Ello Pen, fancy a fuck?') and James Booth.

Even if you have never seen this film, you know the story as it follows the same formula all these kind of films have; a talented man has to work all day doing something his heart isn't in (often for the love of someone close, in this case working as a cantor for his father) whilst doing what he loves at night. This gets him his shot at the big time and he has to let people down to do it, thus upsetting his father. He then loses his way by acting like a tool to all and sundry, because his guilt is too much, and he walks out on everything - at this moment in the film you may as well be watching something completely different; Diamond, grows a beard, buys a stetson and hitches his way across country like some cut price Kenny Rogers, at one point he says of the song You Are My Sunshine "My Daddy taught me that one" like some Good Ole Boy, rather than the Jewish cantor he's supposed to be. It becomes clear that the plot of the film is immaterial to the inherent tropes and ultimately the image Diamond wants to convey. During this, its revealed that he's now a father and has to return home and to fame and adulation a better person enabling a reunion between him and his father. Aww. I believe there are two versions of this film, one which ends on Diamond singing America, and one which has Olivier die and Diamond returning to the synagogue to sing for him there. I have never seen the latter, but I doubt it adds to anything storywise except to end on a more sombre note.

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