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  Jazz Singer, The Unsteady Cantor
Year: 1980
Director: Richard Fleischer
Stars: Neil Diamond, Laurence Olivier, Lucie Arnaz, Catlin Adams, Franklyn Ajaye, Paul Nicholas, Sully Boyar, Mike Kellin, James Booth, James Karen, Ernie Hudson, Michael Pasternak
Genre: Musical, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  3 (from 1 vote)
Review: Yussel Rabinovitch (Neil Diamond) sings as an assistant cantor in the local synagogue, just as his father has done and his father before him, but under the name Jesse Robin he has other plans to make it big in the music industry. So far he has kept these dreams quiet from his father (Laurence Olivier), as tonight when he leaves him behind to go singing with his band, not that his wife Rivka (Catlin Adams) is too happy about this, preferring that Jesse settle down to life as a cantor. Jesse's friend Bubba (Franklyn Ajaye) informs him that he will have to perform tonight at a black club, and so he has to put on blackface for the occasion; all goes well until a member of the audience notices Jesse's white hands...

The list of singers who thought they'd try acting as a way to sell more records is an undeniably lengthy one, and not many of them went onto successful dramatic careers - for every Frank Sinatra there's a few, well, let's face it, a few Neil Diamonds as this remake of Al Jolson's silent classic, which at least had a gimmick, proved. Met with near universal derision on its release, or so the reviews would have you believe, its greatest distinction was winning Diamond the first ever worst actor trophy at the Golden Raspberry Awards. That, and shifting a load of soundtrack albums too.

After all, Diamond's legions of fans wanted to hear him sing, and while he may not be the most obvious cantor in the world with that rasping voice of his, it never did his pop records any harm. The way Jesse's father discovers what he's been getting up to at nights is when he and his band are arrested for the commotion at the club, and have to be bailed out. The reason we see Diamond in blackface is as a tribute to Jolson, which just goes to show you how out of touch the whole enterprise is if they felt that was the best connection to the groundbreaking earlier film since it failed to admit society had moved on significantly, but that's nothing compared to Olivier's comedy accent which makes him sound more like a stereotypical Jewish grandmother.

The conflict arises from Jesse's desire to live out the life of a pop star, and his father and wife's desire for him to stay where he is and keep true to his faith. When Bubba goes from New York to Los Angeles in search of a deal, he takes Jesse's songs with him, and they are sold to an established star, an obnoxious Brit singer played by Paul Nicholas who sings "Love on the Rocks" as a punk number, just to underline how crass the industry is (as if this movie wasn't evidence enough). Jesse dutifully follows to L.A. and performs it as it should be (as a ballad, he insists), getting sacked for his trouble along with his band and an assistant, Molly (Lucie Arnaz), who sees potential in Jesse's music. So it is that the bright lights dazzle him, and he leaves New York behind.

His wife is duly divorced when Jesse and Molly strike up a relationship, and when his father visits, he is horrified that his offspring has got rid of a perfectly nice Jewish girl for this, resulting in the movie's gift to the wags of the time as Olivier growls "I haff no son!", tears his suit collar and speeds off back home. This means a sequence where Jesse rejects showbiz (sort of a PG-rated "Troggs Tapes" bit) and goes away to wander America, like The Incredible Hulk with a guitar (did The Incredible Hulk have a guitar? If he didn't he should have), but don't you worry, there is a happy ending. As with many a singer called on to perform out of their comfort zone, Diamond is painfully uncharismatic throughout, he doesn't come alive on stage either, and any spiritual element is rendered farcical when all Jesse wants to do is sing his middle of the road pop (not jazz, you'll note) in a spangly shirt to standing ovations every night. Nobody but Diamond fans will have much good to say about this Jazz Singer.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Richard Fleischer  (1916 - 2006)

American director whose Hollywood career spanned five decades. The son of famed animator Max Fleischer, he started directing in the forties, and went on to deliver some stylish B-movies such as Armored Car Robbery and Narrow Margin. His big break arrived with Disney's hit live action epic, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and which he followed up with such films as The Vikings, Compulsion, Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler, true crime story 10 Rillington Place, See No Evil, cult favourite Soylent Green, Mister Majestyk, Amityville 3-D and sequel Conan the Destroyer. He became unfairly well known for his critical flops, too, thanks to Doctor Dolittle, Che!, Mandingo, The Jazz Singer remake, Red Sonja and Million Dollar Mystery, some of which gained campy cult followings, but nevertheless left a solid filmography to be proud of.

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