The Jazz Singer is a Jewish story, but above all else it's an immigrant story, a parable about the ever-present push and pull between the traditions of the old country and the glittering temptations of the new. For a Rabbi's son born Asa Yoelson in Seredzius, Lithuania who found extraordinary, almost unprecedented fame as the great American singer Al Jolson, it was a story brimming with autobiographical overtones. But it must have struck a chord with an entire generation of Jewish film pioneers with faded but potent memories of the terror of pogroms and the womb-like security of the neighborhood synagogue.
The Jews who invented Hollywood, to borrow Neal Gabler's immortal phrase, generally eschewed overtly Jewish subject matter out of fear of arousing anti-Semitism, reckoning it was better to lurk under the radar than broadcast their presence and risk becoming targets for Jew-haters, which makes it all the more remarkable that the first-ever (semi) talkie focused so directly on the anxieties and conflicts of show-business Jews. Why? I suspect because Warner Brothers saw the central conflict in 1927's The Jazz Singer as relatively universal, a tale that would resonate not just with Jewish immigrants, but also with Irish, Italians, and all manner of newfangled Americans nursing nostalgic memories of the homelands they'd fled in search of something better.
Richard Fleischer's ill-fated 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer opens with a majestic shot of the Statue of Liberty, that enduring symbol of our country's beneficent embrace of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It's the place where beaten-down Eastern Europeans like, say, my ancestors, were reborn anew with shortened, simplified, Anglicized names conveying their new status as burgeoning Americans. At Ellis Island, a deeply meaningful form of cultural exchange took place: immigrants gave up a little piece of who they were and where they were from in exchange for passage to the promised land, a new Jerusalem where their opportunities were limited only by the boundaries of their imaginations. The nice folks over at Ellis Island "Americanized" Rabinowitz into Rabin, but Neil Diamond's tradition-trapped assistant cantor in the film somehow managed to make it into the late '70s with his ungainly surname of Rabinovich intact. Names have talismanic qualities in our society. They're vessels for self-mythologizing and reinvention, so when Diamond "Americanizes" Rabinovich to the white-bread Robin, it's a moment of profound symbolic significance.
The original Jazz Singer symbolized the tension between the old and new in other ways as well. It brought cinema kicking and screaming into the age of sound while rooted irrevocably in show business traditions that were already on their way out, like blackface minstrelry, vaudeville, and silent-film melodrama. Fleisher's update of The Jazz Singer feels perversely old-fashioned, in no small part because its story was crusty and antiquated back when Jolson was mugging his way through it. By 1980, it felt positively prehistoric.
In his first and, to date, last starring performance, Diamond here plays an assistant cantor torn between following family tradition and pursuing a lifelong dream to make it in the secular music business. Which identity will Diamond ultimately choose: rock god or hen-pecked Jewish husband? Should he perform before adoring crowds or fill in for the cantor when he's otherwise disposed with prostate surgery?
The Jazz Singer goes to great lengths to establish Diamond as an authentic American performer with deep roots in soul and country music rather than a direct descendent of versatile, commercial-minded Jewish, Tin Pan Alley, and Brill Building tunesmiths from Irving Berlin to Lieber and Stoller to Goffin and King. In one of the film's more bizarre sequences, Diamond dons literal blackface–an homage to Jolson's original perhaps?–to perform alongside black buddy/sidekick Franklin Ajaye and his all-black group at an African-American nightclub. This sequence defies belief on multiple levels. Where exactly did Diamond acquire the burnt cork and wig necessary to pull off his surprisingly convincing portrayal of an undercover brother? Do black nightclubs really keep blackface on hand on the off chance one of their performers might need to masquerade as a proud son of Africa? If nothing else, the sequence illustrates a profound pop-culture truth: black people love the middle-of-the-road song stylings of Neil Diamond, especially when he's pretending to be black.
Later, a distraught Diamond hits the road, undergoes a moody beard-growing montage, and reinvents himself as a hard-luck country troubadour in the heavily bearded Willie Nelson mold. Against wildly melodramatic father Laurence Olivier's wishes, Diamond heads to Los Angeles to make it in show business, where he hooks up with perky Lucie Arnaz, who volunteers to manage him and quickly develops a painful crush that puts her at odds with Diamond's devout wife. Which woman will Diamond ultimately choose: his dowdy, plain-looking wife or his marginally less dowdy, slightly less plain-looking manager?
Diamond and Arnaz might pass for the slightly homely friends of romantic leads, but as cinematic lovers they're horrifically miscast. Watching Diamond and Arnaz give into their passions during a soft-focus sex scene is like walking in on your elderly parents having kinky sex, only infinitely more painful and embarrassing. In a star-breaking performance, Arnaz conveys little but the slightly strained vivacity and canned sass of a mediocre sitcom sidekick. Diamond, meanwhile, is utterly defeated by the demands of the script. When called upon to convey heartbreak, Diamond can muster only vague disappointment. When called upon to display moody torment, he conveys the mild irritation of someone who ill-advisedly skipped lunch and is paying an exceedingly modest psychic cost.
But the film's biggest problem is the embarrassingly hammy performance of Laurence Olivier, a great actor at his best and a terrible over-actor at his worst. Like the similarly uneven Richard Burton, Olivier had a serious problem adjusting his acting to the more intimate scale of film. As Diamond's grotesque caricature of a melodramatic Jewish father, Olivier pitches his performance to the cheap seats with an accent seemingly borrowed from Count Chocula's little-known Jewish cousin and diction that suggests he hired Jackie Mason as his dialect coach.
In Olivier's most awesomely bad moment, he spies Arnaz at Diamond's home, rends his garment and yells "I haff no son!," a line that joins "No more wire hangers ever" and "Yonda lies the castle of my fatha" in the great pantheon of unforgettably awful movie lines. When I was in college, I had a non-Jewish girlfriend whose grandmother warned her, with utmost seriousness, that if a Jew marries a non-Jew, their family throws them a funeral in protest. Watching The Jazz Singer, I came to the strange realization that her grandmother probably got much of her information about Judaism from the film, especially the part where Olivier symbolically acts as if his son is dead after learning he's shacking up with a Shiksa.
In The Jazz Singer's romantic assimilation fantasy, Diamond doesn't have to choose between his past and his future, between being a good Jew or being a rock star. In the film's final scene, Olivier sits in the audiences as Diamond–a golden god of rock–wows an audience with "America," an epic patriotic anthem even someone as shameless as Jolson might have viewed as corny and sentimental. It's the song that begins and ends the film, an immigrant's fantasy of America's boundless promise that attains a cheesy grandeur in Diamond's climactic performance. Along with the sublime ridiculousness of Olivier's scenery-chewing, the cornball majesty of Diamond's "America" lifts the film from a mere failure to a dizzy, All-American fiasco.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco