Saturday, May 10, 2008

Obscure Movie Of The Week: The Jazz Singer (1980)

"There are two types of people in this world. Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don't" --Bob 'Bobby' Wiley (Bill Murray), What About Bob, 1991.

Three things regarding Neil Diamond surprised me this week after listening to his new album Home Before Dark:

  1. Neil's never had a number 1 album, although that little fact changes in a big way next week as his new album is slated to become his first.

  2. Neil isn't the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I assumed this was a given, more on that later)

  3. The first ever winner of the Razzie Award for Worst Actor in a movie was given to one Neil Leslie Diamond for The Jazz Singer.

Regarding the last one, I assumed Neil was critically panned for the only movie he's been in where he isn't portraying himself. I'm just surprised that Neil was the award's first ever recipient, although after seeing the movie, one wonders if the Razzie's themselves weren't invented just for Neil's attempt at an acting career.

The movie was a horrible idea from the start. As charismatic -- and often cheesy -- as Neil tends to be performing his music, he's timid and awkward in the role of Jess Robin. Roger Ebert mentions that Neil spends most of the film "looking at people's third shirt buttons, as if he can't be bothered to meet their eyes and relate with them." That's about right, although it is worth mentioning that at one time, while on tour Diamond's contract rider stated that anyone caught looking at him or making eye contact was to be fired. Robin is a Jewish cantor in his father's synagogue, but still has dreams of moving from New York to Los Angeles in the hopes of hitting it big in the music industry. This sort of nonsense gets cold water thrown on it by Robin's father, played by....Laurence Olivier???

It needs to be mentioned that it this point in his distinguished acting career, Olivier had gone completely batshit nuts. In fact, he performs this movie with some bizarre, seemingly made-up accent with broken English, going out of his way to ham it up with every scene. Olivier would famously call the movie "This piece of shit" just after filming it. He'd later apologize to director Richard Fleischer, writing him a handwritten ten-page letter to give an explanation as to why he was making so many movies strictly for the money. That has to be the only reason Sir Laurence took time for this. His character says he "haff no son" upon learning Jess is getting a divorce.

What Papa Robin doesn't realize is that when the opportunity presents itself, his son will perform with an all-black singing group. In an all-black club. Wearing BLACKFACE! He's busted as the "white guy" by a heckler played by an up-and-coming Ernie Hudson. So maybe a life 3,000 miles away would do the boy good (never mind the fact that at the time, Diamond himself was almost 40-years old). Jess needs to leave his wife and babbling idiot of a father for the riches that come with becoming a rock star (the Robin family's motto is that Jewish cantor's are poor because....God is poor). When he gets to LA, Jess immediately meets the woman (Lucie Arnaz) who has his dreams mapped out perfectly.

Jess gets in a minor fight with his new girlfriend, decides to hitchhike, take up smoking, grow a beard and play at seedy honkytonks for an entire year. When he finally returns, everything is right in the world as "Hello Again" plays while Jess finds Arnaz's character waiting for him...with a brand new baby boy, which we are just to assume is his. Which is a good thing because his father accepts Jess again because he's given him a grandson. And of course Jess becomes a major star. He becomes Neil Diamond.

There are those who swear by this movie, despite just how awful it is. Search for "Neil Diamond" in youtube, and you'll see the polarizing effect he has on people with the many comments on any video. You don't want to piss Neil fan off. These people are the reason there's a 25th Anniversary deluxe edition of "The Jazz Singer". They like the fact that "Hello Again" is played at least four times during the movie. The soundtrack also gives us other Neil signature tunes like "Love On The Rocks" and his over-the-top anthem "America". So I think a lot of people are confusing their fondness for the movie's songs with the content of the movie. Many of the scenes in "The Jazz Singer" were were ad-libbed on the spot without any idea where they would be placed. The film went through two directors (Sidney J. Furie was the original hire), and Diamond had a hard time getting worked up for a scene where he has an argument with Arnaz. Oddly enough, Diamond made his band perform a Barry Manilow song to get him filled with enough rage to pull off the scene.

So acting wasn't in the cards for Neil Diamond. He's had a music career like nobody else. Many immediately think of Neil as an adult contemporary softy. But he's loved in all walks of music. He sang "Dry Your Eyes" in The Last Waltz with The Band during their last concert. Urge Overkill famously covered "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" in Pulp Fiction. So he's got a lasting legacy in movies without "The Jazz Singer". Neil's now gone the Johnny Cash route, collaborating with producer Rick Rubin for a second album. Rubin strips away the gloss and sentimentality that usually follows Neil, and his music is better than ever. Yes, there are those who like Neil and those who don't. Then there are also those who compare Neil to Elvis, notably when it comes to "Sweet Caroline". The King used to cover "Sweet Caroline" on tour towards the end of his career, and die-hard Neil Diamond faithful will have none of it. These are the Neil fans who have a soft spot in their heart for "The Jazz Singer".

1 comment:

KeriAnne said...

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