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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Backstage > Drama > The Jazz Singer (1980) - 25th Anniversary Edition

The Jazz Singer (1980) – 25th Anniversary Edition


Picture: C+    Sound: B-    Extras: B    Film: B



The first version of The Jazz Singer (1927) is usually considered the first talkie in movie history, one of its many controversies, and featured Al Jolson appearing in blackface singing "Mammy".  A second version was made in 1952 by director Michael Curtiz and starred Danny Thomas.  The third version of this oft-told story was produced in 1980 and featured singing star Neil Diamond in his first (and last to date) starring role as the title character.


The 1980 version of The Jazz Singer opened during the Christmas season of 1980, and did moderately well despite lots of scathingly negative reviews.  The back of the DVD case says it received three Golden Globe nominations (Diamond for Best Actor, Lucie Arnaz for Best Supporting Actress, and Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" for Best Song).  What the DVD case doesn't tell you is that The Jazz Singer won two 1980 Razzies (Diamond for Worst Actor and Laurence Olivier for Worst Supporting Actor).  The movie, though, really isn't that bad.  Yes, some of the melodramatic story developments probably seemed corny by 1980, and haters of sentimentality might pull their hair out.  However, I thought Diamond's musical numbers were excellent, and most of the film is very likeable in spite of its clichés.  And Olivier certainly didn't deserve a Razzie.  The legendary actor is actually quite good, and has a couple of heartfelt, moving scenes.


The Jazz Singer was directed by veteran Richard Fleischer, who joined the production two weeks after filming began when original director Sidney J. Furie (Lady Sings the Blues, The Boys in Company C, Superman IV) was fired.  I would have liked to have heard the reasons behind Furie's dismissal, but producer Jerry Leider (who seems like a really nice guy) never mentions Furie by name during his audio commentary.  The underrated Fleischer, whose many good films (The Vikings, Compulsion, The Boston Strangler, Soylent Green, Mr. Majestyk) have been overshadowed by a handful of much-hated films (Mandingo, Amityville 3-D, Red Sonja), does his usual workmanlike job behind the camera.


Diamond holds his own on-screen as Yussel Rabinovitch, who works at a New York City synagogue where his deeply religious father (Laurence Olivier) is a cantor.  The old man expects his son to follow in his footsteps, but Yussel has a secret passion.  Under the stage name of Jess Robin, he regularly sneaks off to sing with an all-black band.  And in a nod to the 1927 original, Jess wears an Afro and brown makeup in one scene during an attempt to make him fit in while performing at an all-black club.  Cantor Rabinovitch is none too happy to find out about his son's singing career, and he especially doesn't approve when Jess goes off to Southern California to pursue his dream.  Jess also leaves behind his Jewish wife (Catlin Adams), who's written off way too easily, and ends up having an affair with a Gentile woman (Lucie Arnaz), causing Cantor Rabinovitch to exclaim, "I hef no son," in the film's most mocked line.  But as Jess rises to fame, we get to hear Diamond perform some of his best songs such as "Hello Again," "Love on the Rocks" and "America".  Not surprisingly, the soundtrack album to The Jazz Singer went on to become a much bigger success than the movie itself.


The anamorphically enhanced 1.85 X 1 image was even blown up to 70mm at one point, but here, you would never know that with the softness in the picture.  It has its moments, but is not a new remastering and certainly not HD in any way.  The DVD has been given a decent transfer, but there's still some scenes that appear a bit grainy and lack sharpness within the 1.85:1 frame.  The sound is interesting because this film was the third-ever 5.1 sound film as we know them following Superman – The Movie in 1978 and Apocalypse Now in 1979.  It is not often remembered as such and the combination of the sound mix and the 70mm blow-ups that contained such sound exclusively pre-digital sound era were meant to match what Warner had done with the Barbra Streisand “classic film remake” A Star Is Born in 1976.  It was blown up to 70mm and was the first official Dolby 4.1 sound film, both at a time when this referred to analog magnetic striping on the prints.  35mm could not hold more than four until digital.  Anchor Bay has upgraded the sound to a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and slightly better DTS 6.1 ES mix, though both show harshness and sonic limits.  It is still interesting and will make an interesting comparison if Columbia ever issues the soundtrack in a 5.1 SACD.


Associated Film Distribution, a mini-major from the late '70s and early '80s, originally released The Jazz Singer in December, 1980, but the film hasn't been seen much in recent years.  As usual, Anchor Bay Entertainment has done a wonderful job transferring this guilty pleasure to DVD for the first time -- something they've done again and again.  Thank God for Anchor Bay.  Released to commemorate the film's 25th anniversary, Anchor Bay has once again delivered in the extras department.  In addition to the feature-length audio commentary by producer Leider (a veteran of mostly TV projects who obviously loves the final results much more than most), there's the original theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a few still photos, the theatrical poster image and star and director bios.  I only wish all companies put this much effort into their older catalogue titles.



-   Chuck O'Leary


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