The Jazz Singer Reviews
Now admittedly many of his movies were never really much cop due to changing tastes over the years and the fact his movies tended to be very samey. It was always that first talkie movie he starred in that really stuck out, probably because it was the first...well actually the second but 'A Plantation Act' was more of a selection of songs and not an actual movie. The Jazz Singer is based on Jolson's life growing up in New York. The story was actually written by Samson Raphaelson after interviewing Jolson on his upbringing, he later adapted the story for the theatre and it became a hit. Warner Bros then acquired the rights to the play and naturally wanted to make a movie out of it, at first Jolson wasn't in line to star in the movie but eventually, long story short, he obviously got it and the rest is history.
I guess you could say this film is a biography of sorts, I'm not entirely sure how much is accurate but I thinks its pretty close to Jolson's early years and beyond. The story follows a young Jolson (in the film Jakie Rabinowitz...can't get more Jewish than that folks) getting in trouble with his strict Jewish father for singing in local beer gardens and acting the fool. His father is a cantor at the local synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a fully Jewish area. I'm sure you can guess what goes down here, Jakie's father wants his son to be a good religious boy and follow in his footsteps as a cantor, following family tradition and following his destiny. Unfortunately the rebellious young Jakie wants to do other things and ends up running away to choose his own destiny. Over the years Jakie becomes a talented budding singer with a very bright future but as you can guess all this conflicts with his father and eventually he must choose between his career and his family roots and heritage.
Now I won't lie and say this film is amazing simply because it is historically very important (the film was chosen for preservation in the US Library of Congress's National Film Registry), in all honesty most of the story is rather dull. Hold your horses let me explain, the film is of course black and white but that's not a problem for me. There is of course no sound or dialog for the most part accept for Jolson singing (silent film remember), this means we have lots of rather bland full screen old fashioned subtitles that explain very little. They are also rather limited in appearance so half the time your kinda guessing what's going on by the musical score and peoples expressions. It doesn't help at times that the language of the age is also slightly different, the way people wrote, certain words used etc...a different era. The acting is naturally a bit crappy throughout with the odd exception, Otto Lederer is easily the most entertaining character in the movie with his cheerful comedic turn. You can relate to his feelings on what's happening around him whilst everyone else is deathly serious and boring, plus he has an amusing face which helps.
Of course the real highlight of the entire feature is seeing and hearing Al Jolson hammer out his legendary tunes (only six though). This is really why you watch the movie, the plot is extremely predictable and basic (taking into account the age of the film of course) and its not really that gripping, you're here for the jazz singer himself and he doesn't disappoint. As I was growing up my dad would play Al Jolson every Christmas, it was a family tradition to have old Al singing in the background while our little family would enjoy the festive period. So I know how Jolson sounds, I know most of his hits and some of the famous lyrics, but its something else to actually watch the man perform for real.
A small quirky fella with big bright eyes, highly animated and amusing to watch as he bobs his head around like crazy whilst clapping, mugging at the camera and generally showing off. His routines are full of energy and his voice is loud, bold and pitch perfect, the man is clearly getting a buzz enjoying every second. Its all so very charming and delightful you can't help but smile seeing how people enjoyed the simple things back then. There is even a small sequence where Jolson improvises a lot of dialog with Eugenie Besserer (who plays his old mother) which shows the mans sky high confidence in what he could do both musically and verbally. Besserer clearly has trouble keeping pace and shows us one reason why many actors/actresses back then were scared of talkies...their voices sounded terrible!
Towards the finale we do see the famous blackface routine which was commonplace at the time. These days of course it would be frowned upon and admittedly its hard to watch without feeling a tad awkward. I found myself wondering why on earth they did it in the first place, how did it make their performances any better? why hide away behind the makeup? I think it derives from centuries old history where people would perform theatrical shows, plays or skits and perform as black people simply because there weren't any black people around to do so. Anyway the blackface performance by Jolson is really the central part of the film, everything builds up to this one outstanding performance, the moment he cracks the big time. I believe it is displaying how both Jolson (in reality) and his character broke away from the burdens of a heavily religious Jewish life and made their mark in America, both in show business and personally. The blackface performance, his music...it all helps him prove to himself that he can be something other than a Jewish immigrant...but naturally for the sake of the movie there is a happy ending honouring his family traditions.
It does feel weird knowing you're watching the first ever talkie movie...despite the fact its only the songs that have sound. It is a real gem of a time capsule seeing old 1920's New York, the people, the attire etc...its very interesting in more ways than one. Its funny even at the time the critics said it was a simple schmaltzy affair and they weren't wrong. Its cram-packed full of sickly sentimental family customs, rituals and traditional beliefs...in short...its all very Jewish (and I know about that). Honesty its not really a movie as such, you could almost say it was a bit of a gimmick to both promote Jolson and at the same time use him to promote talking pictures in the best way possible. More of an experiment with talking pictures which at the same time takes the opportunity to capture the greatest performer of the age.
'wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!'
When The Jazz Singer is viewed through the eyes of a modern audience, it is difficult to comprehend the impact this seemingly insignificant film had on cinema. It spurred what many view as the greatest revolution in the history of film. Despite its many flaws, I cannot bring myself to fail it, as it has influenced films in so many ways. I can also be somewhat generous with my rating because it had the challenge of being the very first film to be done in this manner. After decades of silent films with title cards being tradition, I can imagine that it would have been hard to make the very first film of its kind, not having any other examples to go by. The Jazz Singer is full of holes but its historical significance cannot go unnoticed.
But, as a true fan of movies, I can't deny the significance of "The Jazz Singer". It was the first movie with sound..that is, "synchronous" sound, meaning sound that is actually coming from the actors and not a score added in post-production. And, it wasn't just a gimmick to showcase the new technology...I was actually really entertained, and quite moved by the message of faith and family. Not to mention Al Jolson's delightful and magnetic performance. I'd be stupid not to recognize and acknowledge this film for what it was at the time rather than what it is today. This is a proven classic, and for good reason, and there's really only one rating that would do this revolutionary film justice, a full five stars.
This film is generally remembered as the first talking picture. While this film did indeed have spoken dialogue, I'm not sure this is the first non-silent film ever made and I'm not sure this isn't a silent film. First, the sound-on-disc technology had been around since the early 1920s. D.W. Griffith's short Dream Street features synchronized dialogue. The 1926 feature film Don Juan features pre-recorded sound effects and a musical score, but no spoken dialogue. The Jazz Singer went a little further than those works by having both synchronized dialogue and being feature-length. Still, most of the film is silent with intertitles. There are six musical numbers which are sung. In the middle of two of these musical numbers is a brief bit of dialogue. The first time Jolson talks to the audience who is not supposed to respond and the second time he has a conversation with his mother although most of what she says is unintelligible.
Overall, this wasn't a very good movie. I'll give it some credit for revolutionizing talking pictures, but it probably gets too much credit for this to begin with. It's worth seeing for those who want a very early example of a sound film, but given that it is mostly silent I wouldn't consider this the first real talkie.
UP NEXT: To be determined.