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!'
I've always known that this film was the first "talky" - however, I had no idea that it is still essentially a silent film, with the same styles of over-emphasized acting, dialog cards & editing. The only sound is during the songs, and one short scene of dialog. It has very stereotypical, and even insulting, portrayals of Jews and jazz singers - as well as the infamous black face scenes . . . however, it is an interesting peek into cultural perceptions in the 1920's. Faith vs. art, culture vs. tradition, values vs. success, race vs. public perception, musical styles in transition vs. establishment, etc. I found it quite fascinating & entertaining, with some genuine thematic depth - albeit overwrought, corny, and racist in places. It is certainly a treasured time capsule with historical significance that is worth analysis and discussion.