Film Rewind: The Jazz Singer (1980)
December 30, 2005
I hope everyone is enjoying the 2005 "holiday season." If you're Christian, you celebrated the birth of Jesus...again.
If you count yourself among the Chosen People, the Festival of Lights is in full swing. Me, well, I just have more stuff in my apartment.
But, don't think that I'm completely without a spiritual path. In between sittings of stuffing my face with
pancetta-based hors d'oeuvres and besotting myself with mulled merlot, I've had a chance to think about what the holiday season
means to me. Last year, I selfishly thought that Christmas meant iPod and TiVo. However, this year, I wanted to move beyond the
material constraints that get in the way of what really matters -- what truly deserves our attention. Some might say Peace on Earth, Good Will
Toward Men. Others swear by family, friends and that warm fuzzy feeling of togetherness and ham. I thought long and hard and popped another See's
chocolate into my mouth. I scanned the pile of
random DVDs that Santa saw fit to bring. Then, as if from the lips of my dead grandmother herself, two words whispered as if from another dimension.
A half-chewed chunk of chocolate fell unnoticed from my gaping mouth. Of course. How could satellite radio or The Avenging Unicorn Playset
possibly compete with the man himself?
Yes. The true spirit of this holiday season. I'm talking about Neil Diamond. And his chest hair.
Santa was extra kind this year and slipped a 25th anniversary copy of The Jazz Singer into my stocking. Released in 1980, Neil's star vehicle is
the third iteration of the classic Al Jolson blackface-talkie released in 1927. (The second, starring Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee, came out in 1952.
Yeah, I don't care either.) Each version tells the story of a Jewish son who breaks away from his devout Cantor father and leaves his wife to pursue a career
in secular music. Our hero -- Neil, in this adaptation -- has to face the tough choice of pleasing his family or pleasing himself. Conundrum!
Neil Diamond was 39 years old when this movie was filmed -- not usually the age of one who checks in with Dad before he makes a decision about the
direction of his life. Perhaps if he'd consulted his real life father, he would have been advised against making this floating turd,
(albeit a turd bobbing in time to bee-yoo-ti-ful music.)
Neil's version of The Jazz Singer is a misnomer; there's not a lick of jazz to be heard. Only the raw sexuality of Mr. Neil Diamond, the sound of
chest hair brushing against magenta lamé and a soundtrack that features such golden hits as Hello Again, America and
Love on the Rocks. What could jazz possibly add to all that?
Neil Leslie Diamond was born on January 24, 1941 in Brooklyn, the oldest son of Akeeba and Rose Diamond. He went to the same high school as
Barbra Streisand where they both sang in the choir. Neil started writing and singing songs after he was given a guitar on his sixteenth birthday. His
biggest break came in 1966 when he penned I'm A Believer for The Monkees. He gained further recognition with Sweet Caroline and
Song Sung Blue, both which he wrote and performed. In 1977, he released You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore. Babs herself covered the song
the following year, prompting a hugely successful duet between the former schoolmates. The pair was slated to appear in a movie version of the song,
however plans fell through when Neil opted to star in The Jazz Singer instead. I don't know whether to be depressed or thrilled about this.
I haven't been able to find out whether Babs was invited to participate in The Jazz Singer; whether she turned down a role or if her striking similarity to Catlin Adams,
who plays Neil's wife, Rivka Rabinovitch, is a fluke. Catlin is the spit-on image of Ms. Streisand, ala the The Essential Barbra years.
Think about it: we've got Neil Diamond starring opposite Laurence Olivier, largely considered one of the greatest actors of the
20th Century, and Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Lucy and Desi. Would the Funny Girl have outshone all this star power? Is this why director Richard Fleischer
decided to go with Catlin, the actress who would go on to star as Ms. Loomis, the health teacher in the ill-fated teen sit-com, Square Pegs?
(Catlin later redeemed herself by directing the third episode of Season 1 of Beverly Hills 90210: "Every Dream Has Its Price," which first aired
on October 18, 1990. Kelly's best friend from Junior High, Tiffany,
is a shoplifter who hides the goods in Brenda's bedroom. Both girls are arrested, then some stuff happens and (I think) everyone learns their lesson
and has a hearty laugh. Remember, Season 1 was long before David Silver's meth addiction and Tori Spelling getting thrown down a flight of stairs by her "abusive" boyfriend.
Tori getting beaten could have come a lot sooner, if you ask me, but at least it eventually did).
Neil stars as Yussef Rabinovitch, son of Cantor Rabinovitch, played by Sir Laurence Olivier -- a role not usually heralded as one of his best. The Cantor
exhibits two emotions: ecstatic, child-like glee or despair so deep he rips at his own clothing. Midpoint during the film, I began to wonder if Sir
Olivier had modeled his performance after a manic-depressive housewife. Yussef is expected to
follow in the footsteps of his father as the fifth generation of Rabinovitch cantors. Yussef has other ideas. His alter ego -- Jess Robin -- leads
a secret nighttime life as a singer/song writer for a black quartet. On the big night the group is set to perform in front of an agent, one of the members
is arrested for stealing a car. What to do -- they only have three black guys and the agent is expecting four! They did what any sensible group would
do in such a predicament: they dressed up Neil Diamond in an afro wig and blackface. Don't laugh -- this is a concept that works. So much so that it was recycled six years
later in the C. Thomas Howell opus, Soul Man. Affirmative action always has them rolling in the aisles.
Meanwhile, everything was going great
on stage for Blackface Neil Diamond until one of the audience members notices the "white boy's" hands. A brawl ensues. Neil Diamond is seen throwing a punch, as well as
kicking a black man while he's already down. Don't worry: this isn't racist, as the Jews are as oppressed as the blacks...
...case in point when Daddy Rabinovitch comes to the jail to bail out his newly blackened son.
Looking searchingly into Jess's face, Daddy Rabinovitch says: "Is it not tough enough being a Jew?" We could all learn a little something from
Eventually Jess gets a break when his pal, Bubba, calls from L.A. with news that a singer wants to use one of Jess's songs. Hot damn -- leaving
on a jet plane! But first -- more drama with Fake Barbra and Pops. Sad face.
Leaving wifey and daddy behind for "only two weeks," Jess arrives in the promised land of sun and surf. He meets Hollywood agent, Molly Bell, played by Lucie Arnaz. Molly/Lucie has an amazing perm.
We get our first full-on Neil performance when he goes to the recording studio to hear the other singer belt out a glam metal version of
Love on the Rocks. Jess is appalled by how his song has been raped by the likes of a Billy Idol wannabe. Without further ado, he sits down to show
them how it's done. The audience knows, as soon as Jess slips those headphones over his luxurious chops, that he was born to sing soppy ballads with
heart-wrenching sincerity. Meanwhile, Molly is coming in her pants on the other side of the studio glass. But she's coming subtly, see,
so only the viewers at home can tell how much she wants this Jew.
After his version of Love on the Rocks, Jess Robin is fired by the Billy Idol impersonator. The two weeks he'd planned to spend in L.A., looking for his
big break, are almost up. It's time to go back to Faux-Babs and singing in the synagogue under the watchful eye of daddy. But Molly has other plans
Molly: "I know how to get you stay. I'll give you my body." (say: baaah-dy.)
(Silence from her would-be beau. And from the viewing audience.)
Molly: "Hello? Hello again? I just offered you my body!" (You see, this is really funny because Jess just finished playing Molly
his new piece "Hello Again" and she brings it back...oh nevermind.
Jess, still packing his things, isn't biting. "I heard you the first time."
In a moment of prize comic relief, Molly puts on a pouty face. "Well, would you settle for a
pizza?" And here we have the spark of a beautiful relationship. Or a screenplay train wreck, I'm not sure which.
Eventually, Molly helps Jess get a gig opening up for a comedian named "Zany Gray." As Molly is adjusting Jess's pink lamé ensem before his debut,
she wishes him luck. I was on pins and needles -- would it go ok? Would he become a big star? Hold on. This is Neil Diamond we're talking about; the man's chest hair alone
is an express ticket to superstar city.
But wait, who's this little marm entering backstage left? Why, it's little lost Rivvie, making a surprise visit all the way from New York to see her hubby perform.
She makes a beeline for Molly who is anxiously trying to snap photos. Since Molly is offstage, the only photos she'd be able to get are of Jess's ass.
Any alarm bells going off here?
Rivka: "Jess tells me you've been a great help to him. I mean, every time we talk it's Molly did this or Molly did that."
Molly: "That's very nice of 'im."
(Awkward, forced tension pause. Third-rate actresses desperately trying to earn their pay.)
Rivka: "Please forgive me, but...3,000 miles away and you begin to wonder if he's telling me everything that Molly did."
(Molly snaps another photo.)
Molly: "I offered him my body once. He settled for a pizza."
For most wives, this comment would ignite a rather exciting cat fight. Not Rivvie. She just laughs as though she hears women every day, with better perms
than her own, confess that they'd recently offered their bodies to her husband. Admirable, really, her strength and virtue.
Rivvie is a rock. A pillar. She's also quickly losing screen time...oh! and then she's gone. Out of Jess's life and the movie. Sad face.
As all good Hollywood love stories go, Jess and Molly fall for each other via a montage set to Hello Again. Once again comic relief -- probably even more hilarious than ZANY Gray himself --
Molly makes Jess dinner. But wouldn't you know it -- she made a pork roast! Wacka wacka -- Jews don't eat pork, you silly shiksa. Ha ha, we all
learn a little about Jewish culture and everyone gets a good chuckle. The montage continues -- and even goes as far as to show them riding
a tandem bike along the boardwalk in Venice. Can you get anymore idyllic? Yes! When they get naked in front of a burning fireplace -- everyone in Venice has
a fireplace in their beachfront condo, don't you know. Dear Jesus up in heaven, please let me
touch Neil Diamond's chest hair just once before I die. Amen.
Everything is swell until Daddy Rabinovitch shows up unannounced on Jess's Venice doorstep. First Rivvie and then the Cantor -- fuck phone calls, this family just jumps
on a plane. Dad wants Jess to come home. Basically, Laurence Olivier is forced to play the same scene five or six times throughout this film:
blissful happiness, then crushing pain and grief. He's thrilled to see the ocean, but oops, Molly, laden with groceries, makes a poorly-timed entrance into the apartment.
Cantor takes one look at her and his face crumples like a tin can. "No, no, noooooooo!" he screams. Then he rips at his
suit (which was probably too hot for Venice-wear, anyway) and leaves the apartment. Molly stands by, barely able to contain her horror. Welcome to the
family, honey. Dad runs stumbles out, not even taking his overcoat -- and I'm assuming he'll need that for those cold NYC winters. You see, people
get acclimated to California that fast.
Jess explains that Jews rip a piece of clothing when they are mourning someone who is dead. "Who's dead?" she exclaimed (she's a little slow...but damn,
doesn't her perm have bounce?)
"I am", he says. This is what they call the "turning point" or the "climax" in a work of fiction.
Things just aren't the same after Jess is declared "dead" to his father. He snaps at his back-up singers and yells at Molly that "he doesn't need
her, he doesn't need anyone!" He storms out of the recording studio, jumps into his blue convertible and peels out, almost running down women and
children. He drives, pensively, until his car dies on the side of the road in the middle of the unforgiving California desert. And I was so enjoying watching Neil's sideburns
flap in the fake studio breeze fronting a painted backdrop. He abandons the car (he doesn't need anything!) and starts walkin'. A lonely road for a lonely soul. This
is when The Jazz Singer becomes a Marlboro commercial.
Time passes, I guess. Enter Jess with a beard, cowboy hat and Nicole Richie sunglasses. He's hitchin' rides from truckers, smoking cigs (which we've never seen
him do before this -- that's what the open road can do. Parents, beware). He gets a job in Texas strumming various incantations
of You Are My Sunshine. This is Jess Robin's crisis point, when we should start to wonder if he'll ever find his way back. Beard + cowboy hat + Texas = mayday, mayday!
Then, one day while Jess is listlessly plucking at a piano, his old friend, Bubba enters.
Jess: "How did you find me?"
Bubba: "One musician can always find another."
Bubba is the bearer of good news. During his Marlboro Man hiatus, Jess inadvertently became a father. (????) That's all he needs to hear -- he's a'comin'
I think we were all supposed to think that Molly was the strong woman of the film. Rivvie accepted that women offered their body to her husband, but
Molly has no qualms about taking Jess back into her arms even after NINE MONTHS OF NO CONTACT WHILE PREGNANT WITH HIS BABY.
The woman is a fucking saint.
First things first: Jess gets his life back together by shaving off the beard. Whew! Glad that's over he's says to his reflection in the mirror. Actually,
this scene didn't happen, but I like to imagine that it did.
I think we still have a few loose ends to tie up. Remember a certain Cantor who ripped his suit over a certain "dead" son? The writers didn't forget either.
Conveniently, Jess gets to open for -- you know it -- Zany Gray. Who is this guy? And why can't Jess get his own gigs if he's doing so well? Zany
must be hilarious. The kicker, though, is that the show is to be filmed in New York. Hey -- that's where Daddy Rabinovitch lives! I smell
a reunion tour.
One of his father's friends from synagogue comes to see Jess during the show rehearsal. Daddy Rabinovitch's high blood pressure is preventing him
from being able to sing in front of the congregation at Yom Kippur -- the first time in five generations that a Rabinovitch hasn't sung! Molly is adamant that Jess
make amends with his father.
Molly: "I'll just never forget how he was looking at me when he tore his clothes. This will always be between us." Don't flatter yourself, honey.
So Jess sucks it up and makes a once-in-a-lifetime appearance at synagogue. Daddy Rabinovitch is hardened until he is given a photo of his
grandson...more tears, but the clothes stay in one piece this time. Everything is going to be o-kay.
Cut to Jess taking the stage wearing a sequined royal blue shirt and glittering white scarf. Has anyone noticed his crazy fucking eyebrows? I think Neil is
taking "Diamond" a little too literally in this scene. I like sparkly and all, but this is spiking even my shiny meter off the charts. Neil/Jess bursts
into a spirited rendition of America, complete with fist pumping and a spectacular light show. Molly/Lucie cries. Daddy R is blown away. You
might think this scene is what
killed Sir Laurence, but it was actually cancer. I looked it up.
There you have it: The Jazz Singer, early 80's style. No jazz, Jewish Elvis, a fake Babs Streisand and Sir Laurence Olivier wishing
he were dead. You never know for sure in a Hollywood that has made new live-action Scooby Doo movies, but I dearly hope this is the last go-round
for The Jazz Singer. Although, if a fourth version presented itself as a K-Fed/Britney come-back vehicle, I'd be first in line with a fist full of money for my ticket. That's
how sick this world is.
Happy Hanukkah to Jewish Elvis and all who worship Him!