Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Jazz Singer (1980)

The release of yet another version of A Star is Born last year made me think of another much-remade musical movie: The Jazz Singer.  While the 1927 original long ago secured its place in cinema history, the various remakes (a 1952 film starring Danny Thomas and a 1959 TV version starring Jerry Lewis) are largely forgotten, except, of course, for the notorious 1980 remake.  Sadly, it is remembered for all the wrong reasons: critically reviled and a box office flop, it is perhaps no surprise that there have been no further attempts to remake the property.  But is it really that bad?  Well, technically it is a well made movie, with its high production values showing the big budget.  But it is hampered by several factors - the most obvious being that its title no longer makes sense.  As with the previous two remakes, the protagonist no longer sings anything that could be described as 'Jazz'.  Updated, like those earlier versions, to a then contemporary setting, the film also updates the music to reflect contemporary styles, with Neil Diamond performing soft rock numbers.  (To be fair, the soundtrack album was a big hit, indicating that with the musical score, at least, the film had connected with a contemporary audience).

Another problem lies with the leading performances.  When he isn't singing, Diamond is muted and moody, whereas Laurence Olivier, playing his father, lays on the ham.  Using what became, in this phase of his film career, his familiar middle European accent, (also on display in Boys From Brazil, Dracula and Marathon Man), is ramped up with huge dollops of added 'Jewishness'.  His outrageous over  acting overbalances the film and threatens to drown out everyone else - especially Diamond.  But the biggest problem is that, despite all the attempts at updating, the film's plot just seems so old fashioned. Indeed, like previous versions, it follows the plot of the original pretty closely, (even referencing the 'black face' performances of the original, when Diamond tries to help out some black musician friends by blacking up to perform with them when a band member falls ill), delivering a film which just feels overly sentimental and cloying.  Unlike A Star is Born, which has a plot which can be played out in different eras and genres and is open to constant reinterpretation, The Jazz Singer's plot is firmly rooted in a very specific era and culture and attempts to remake it seem to indicate that it simply doesn't translate well to other eras and musical genres.  It is worth noting that the original owes its lasting fame less to any artistic merit it might have than to its technical achievement in being the first 'talkie'.  A 'unique selling point' that no remake could ever replicate, of course.



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