Secret Shame

My Secret Shame: The Jazz Singer (June 3)

There is nothing wrong with liking Neil Diamond; I’m not ashamed about that.  He’s always been a unique, talented and prolific artist.  Saving Silverman gave him a certain cult status and his appearance as a mentor on this season’s American Idol legitimized him with a younger audience.  The music is great, but the movie The Jazz Singer is a shlocky, schmaltzy mess of a film…and I love the damn thing (warning: the entire plot of the movie is laid out below, in case you haven’t seen it…oh, who am I kidding?)

Neil plays Yossel Rabinovich, a fifth generation cantor toiling away as an assistant cantor at a poor synagogue in New York.  He’s married to his childhood sweetheart and they still share a tiny apartment with his father even though they are clearly both in their late 30s.  This is where the problems begin.  The movie doesn’t know if it wants Yossel, who sneaks out after services to play gigs with his friends and goes by the stage name of Jess Robin, to be conservative or Orthodox; bored with his life or in emotional turmoil over his choices.  Diamond can’t convey this all that well, try as he might.  His wife certainly acts the part of a stereotypically subservient Orthodox woman, but Jess is a little too hip (circa 1980, that is) for us to believe he ever even wanted to be married to this woman.  They have zero chemistry. And if they were orthodox, they would have at least a couple rugrats by this point, for sure.
Sir Lawrence Olivier, considered one the greatest film actors ever, plays Jess’ father like a doddering old fool, who is nonetheless able to make his way across country when Jess does not come home after 3 months in Los Angeles.  His reactions to Jess wanting to do anything but be a underpaid assistant cantor are so over the top ridiculous that you really think he must be kidding.

Once the ball gets rolling, things happen awfully quickly and easily for Jess, although I suppose these sorts of things always happen in movies.  He goes to L.A. for two weeks after his friend (and backup singer) Bubba plays someone a demo, then gets fired by the artist set to record his song the first day he’s there. But on the very last hour of the last day of his trip, he gets a gig that propels him to opening for a big comic.  Where the audience goes bananas for the guy.  Bam!  Instant record contract, groupies and stardom!  Bam! His wife punts him because he doesn’t want to share a postage stamp of an apartment with his elderly father and be miserable at his job, but follow his true calling in life.  Once that happens, Jess is immediately free to move on to his manager, Molly; Remember, it’s been three weeks or so, and he’s just left his wife…he was really broken up about that, huh?

You can go along with all of this soap operatic malarkey because of the hypnotic nature of Diamond’s music.  Anytime something annoying goes on, here comes Neil and either his piano or guitar to bust out “Love on the Rocks” or “My Louise” or “Ooh, Baby Baby” and all is right with the world.  And then the movie goes completely mental.  Upset by his father saying he has no son when he visits and realizes Jess is with Molly now (scene below), Jess flips out on his band and the backup singers during a recording session.  He then proceeds to just take off, leaving Molly, the band and the label in a lurch.  Now, he doesn’t know Molly’s pregnant, so no harm no foul there, I guess, but he just disappears, you know?  He hitches around the south for about a year (I know this because of all the cowboy hats, fringed jackets and country music), playing in dives and no doubt “finding himself” along the way.  And then, suddenly, Bubba manages to somehow find him in a random bar (one of the great movie mysteries, to be sure) and lets him know that, oh by the way, he has a son.

Share Button

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *