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Film: The Jazz Singer

"You ain't heard nothing yet!"

The 1927 film The Jazz Singer tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz (played by Al Jolson), the son of a Jewish cantor, who declines to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, he dissembles his Jewish identity while trying to make it in the world of popular music. Just as Jakie is about to hit the big time, his father falls ill, forcing Jakie to choose between his family and his show-biz dreams.

The Jazz Singer, despite its reputation as the first "talkie," is fundamentally a silent film, with an atmospheric musical backdrop, no sound effects, and dialogue on title cards. It does, however, have several recorded songs which are lip-synced (with variable success), and during the filming/recording of one of these songs, Jolson ad-libbed a spoken intro: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya! You ain't heard nothin'!" (Additionally, the film has one short synchronized dialogue scene where Jolson talks to his mother.)

Audiences at the time heard something in that.

Experiments in recorded film sound were nothing new; as far back as 1894, an Edison film of a violin player was paired with a recording of the instrument. In 1926, the Warner Bros. film Don Juan was released with a prerecorded, instrumental soundtrack, eliminating the need for live accompaniment. Sunrise, a critically adored experimental melodrama released the same year as The Jazz Singer featured a line or two of background chatter as part of the soundtrack. What The Jazz Singer brought to the table was an ambitious use of synchronization (or, as Warner dubbed it, the "Vitaphone" process). Even that, if confined to the songs, might have remained a sterile gimmick. But speech — that was something else. The first "all-talking" picture was The Lights of New York, a gangster film released in 1928.

Oh, yeah — the blackface scene. The redeeming element may be that the song — "My Mammy" — reflects Jakie's reconciliation with his own mother; in a way, Jakie is identifying very deeply with the stereotyped "darkie" character he portrays. It was also 1927. It was very common in old cartoons of the 1930s to reference this scene via Blackface gags (i.e. smoke or ash being blown onto the victim's face, which somehow makes them want to shout "Mammy!").

There were two remakes of this film:

1. 1952, starring Danny Thomas. This version made one of the Medved's Worst Film compilations. Anyone who has seen it and is willing to admit it should write in.

2. 1980. Neil Diamond is The Jazz Singer! This version is very much a sound film. Synopsis:

Diamond's character is the son of Rabbi Rabinovitz (Laurence Olivier), and a cantor like his father. But he wants to be a pop singer (the "jazz" in this version is metaphorical). Early on, he is sneaking out to sing with a soul group—and yes, he's in blackface. Or rather, brownface—he's trying to look like the real blacks he's with, not the stereotypes in the Minstrel Shows. Don't worry, once he leaves NYC, he reverts back to his normal coloring and stays there.

One of the songs he has written for his band, under the name Jess Robin, has gotten greater notice, and so he is asked to bring himself and his song to California, where it is to be recorded by a British singer. This does not go over well with his father or his wife, but he goes ahead and flies west. He is met in California by Molly, the woman who will become his agent.

They drop into the recording studio. Jess severely dislikes what the other British musician is doing with his song. He sings it to show how it should be done. (For the record, the song in question is "Love on the Rocks".) The musician rejects the correction and continues doing it his own way. But Jess stays in California with Molly, who gets him a booking: "Pretend we've never seen each other" to a fella who has never seen her before but who owns a venue.

Montage as time passes. Molly is so much of a goy that she tries to serve Jess ham! Still, they spend a lot of time together, and he writes love songs for her. Yes, she is his lover. All this necessarily hurts his marriage, and his wife eventually flies out to get a divorce and inform him that he's still wanted as a cantor. His father also flies out to see him. After it has been suitably established that he is living with and loving a Gentile girl, and not being very observant in other ways — he doesn't even use the original name — Rabbi Rabinovitz leaves saying "I Have No Son!" This shakes our hero...His star keeps rising. But right before the biggest (and televised) gig of his life, he has a Heroic BSOD and skips town. He is eventually found in Texas or thereabouts by a bandmate, who informs Jess that he's now a dad by Molly, so he heads back to California to reconcile with her and become part of a new family.

He eventually performs as a cantor one more time as a way to reconcile with his father. Molly works to get him another gig around the same time: "Pretend you don't know me" to the same guy she said it to before, and he really wishes he could. The fella is reluctant to make the booking because Jess did skip town last year, but she is able to talk him into giving him a full five-minute slot. The film ends with a rousing performance of "America", with Molly — and Jess's now-proud father — in the audience.

Say what you will about the plot and acting of this film — if you like Neil Diamond's music, it's worth seeing.

Tropes included in both the 1927 and 1980 versions of this film include:

  • Artifact Title: Neil Diamond's character does not sing jazz. Also applies to the original film, by modern standards. Al Jolson's character never sings "jazz" as modern audiences expect - aside from the "blackface" scene (which is in the "Traveling Minstrel" tradition) - all of the music would be what we would today identify as "ragtime." "Jazz" in this context is more synonymous with "ruckus" or "noise," actually bringing it in line with its use in the Niel Diamond remake.
  • Beard of Sorrow: Neil Diamond version, after his Heroic BSOD.
  • Billy Elliot Plot: Sort of, if you consider singing to be "feminine" and being a cantor to be "manly."
  • Blackface: One of the most famous examples in film.
  • Dies Wide Open: Cantor Rabinowitz in the original, oddly enough, closes his eyes first, slumps, and then opens them again after he dies.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In the original, Jakie's producer warns him that he'll "queer (him)self on Broadway" if he skips the show to sing Kol Nidre.
  • I Have No Son: In both versions, but much sillier in the remake.
  • Mythology Gag: Neil Diamond wearing blackface so he can sing with an R&B group is a nod to Al Jolson's blackface routine in the original.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Inverted in the original; Cantor Rabinowitz dies after Jack returns to the synagogue and sings, thus earning his father's forgiveness.
  • Silence Is Golden: Oddly, for a film that is rightly remembered as ushering in talking pictures, the bulk of the original is silent. The use of sound is confined to 1) Jolson's songs and 2) one four-minute dialogue scene (when Jack comes home to see his mother).
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Cantor Rabinowitz in the 1980 remake.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: All the Jazz Singer wants is his father's approval.

Parodies of the basic plot (not specific to any of the film versions) include:

  • An SCTV sketch, guest-starring Al Jarreau, which reverses the plot in that the father expects the son to be a jazz singer like himself but the son instead becomes a cantor.
  • The Simpsons episode "Like Father, Like Clown", guest-starring the voice of Jackie Mason as Krusty's estranged father Rabbi Hyman Krustovsky. The I Have No Son moment is memorably spoofed.
    • Mason himself is to some extent a Real Life instance of The Jazz Singer; under pressure from his father he received rabbinic ordination as his brothers did, but he subsequently chose to become a comedian.
  • The 1936 Merrie Melodies cartoon I Love to Singa, directed by Tex Avery, featuring fledgling jazz singer "Owl Jolson" rebelling against his family of traditionalist musicians. This film was intended to advertise the title song, "I Love To Singa" which was featured in an Al Jolson and Cab Calloway film released around the same time.

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alternative title(s): The Jazz Singer
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