- Movie Rating -

The Jazz Singer (1980)

| December 19, 1980

I could make a long list arguing the reasons why a remake of Al Jolsen’s 1927 musical The Jazz Singer was a bad idea, but it would be pointless since Richard Fleisher’s modernized version includes pretty much all of them.  I don’t have the time nor the energy to go into the entire list, but I must address the scene in which Neil Diamond appears in blackface.  Yeah, that happens.

I think it’s played as a joke.  Diamond’s character writes songs for an African-American band and when the lead singer lands himself in jail, Diamond is pushed out onstage with the group, indeed, with dark makeup.  I sat frozen in silence for a moment.  The original Jazz Singer was a pretty bad movie marred historically by Jolson’s blackface routine.  If the producers of this remake were so hot on turning it into a Neil Diamond movie, why keep that unsavory element?

I wish that I could say that this was the end of the problems with this movie, but sadly it’s just the beginning.  For starters, this is a movie about a third-generation Jewish canter (badly played by Diamond) whose life is a mess.  His father (badly played by Laurence Olivier) is a New York canter who questions his son’s choices in life, but the son knows that his musical yearnings lie outside the church. This is a story as old as the hills.  Does the son stick with the traditions of the church or defy his father and go his own way?  Fine.  I’ve heard worse.  The problem is that this is a crisis for someone about college age.  Neil Diamond is in his early 40s, about the point when the highpoints of his ambitions would already have peaked.  If he were a successful musician, he’d most likely be on his way back down the ladder of success.  He’s just too old for this kind of personal crisis, so it looks a little silly to watch a man his age to be at his father’s feet moaning that “I have things inside of me that I have to express, I have my music.  I have my life, my feelings.  Maybe they come from God too.”

And even THAT isn’t the biggest problem here because Neil Diamond, popular as he is, simply cannot act.  He’s mopey, moody and spends much of the off-stage scenes looking at his shoes and speaking in a low-key monotone.  This is his first movie and it is clear that either he has been given bad direction or nobody thought it was their place to tell him that his scenes are terrible.

The filmmakers also didn’t want to dampen his stage presence.  This is a movie about a guy who moves from New York to L.A. to break into the music business but every time he starts to sing you sense that the arrangement cost more than your house.  What peak is he reaching for?  This is a bad movie simply made to get Neil Diamond in a movie, but nobody seems to have thought out the movie that Diamond should star in, nor do they want to upset his devoted fans by putting him in a movie that would cast him in a bad light.  Except for the blackface but, you know, at that point we’re supposed to be laughing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized