The Jazz Singer (1980 film)

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The Jazz Singer
Jazz singer.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRichard Fleischer
Produced byJerry Leider
Screenplay by
Based onThe Jazz Singer
by Samson Raphaelson
Music byGilbert Bécaud
Neil Diamond
Leonard Rosenman
Richard Bennett
Alan E. Lindgren
CinematographyIsidore Mankofsky
Edited byFrank J. Urioste
Distributed byAssociated Film Distribution
Release date
  • December 19, 1980 (1980-12-19)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$13 million
Box office$27.1 million

The Jazz Singer is a 1980 American musical drama film directed by Richard Fleischer and produced by Jerry Leider. The film stars Neil Diamond (in his acting debut), Sir Laurence Olivier and Lucie Arnaz, and tells the story of a young singer who is torn between tradition and pursuing his dreams as a pop singer. Based on the 1925 play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson, this film is the fourth adaptation of the play, after the 1927 and the 1952 theatrical adaptions, and a 1959 television adaption.

Developed as a starring vehicle for Diamond, who had undergone a revival of popularity in the late 1970s, the film was initially intended to be produced by Paramount and AFD, with Sidney J. Furie directing, and Deborah Raffin acting opposite Diamond. However, production was plagued with several delays in filming, the departures of Furie and Raffin, and numerous script rewrites.

The Jazz Singer was released by AFD on December 19, 1980, and was a critical and commercial disappointment, although it did make a substantial profit, doubling its $13 million budget by making $27.1 million (not including sales of the soundtrack album, which shipped quintuple platinum, or over 5 million copies, making it the most successful of Diamond's recording career). Critics panned the acting of Diamond and - unusually - Sir Laurence, while praising Arnaz's performance and Diamond's accompanying soundtrack and live musical performances in the film. The soundtrack eventually reached multi-platinum status, became Diamond's most successful album to date and one of the more successful film soundtrack albums in history.


Yussel Rabinovitch is a young, fifth-generation Jewish cantor performing at the synagogue of his imperious father. Yussel is married to his childhood friend Rivka, and settled down to a life of religious devotion.

But on the side, he writes songs for a black singing group, and when a member of the quartet is arrested, Yussel covers for him at one of their gigs by wearing blackface. The engagement is a success, but one of the patrons notices Yussel's hands are white. A fight ensues, and the band is arrested. Yussel's father comes to the jail to bail them out and discovers there is not a Yussel Rabinovitch there, but a Jess Robin. Yussel confesses to his father this is a professional stage name he uses when performing. His father tells him that his singing voice was to be used for God's purposes, not his own.

Bubba, a member of the singing group, is Yussel's best friend, although he knows him only as Jess. Bubba informs him that the band has a gig in Los Angeles, performing back-up vocals for a successful singer (Keith Lennox). Yussel begins composing a song that will eventually become "Love on the Rocks." His wife Rivka notices his song writing, and senses that he yearns for a bigger stage for his voice.

Bubba calls from Los Angeles to inform Jess that Lennox loved "Love on the Rocks" and wants to record it. He asks Jess to come to L.A. to oversee the recording session. Jess views this as the opportunity he has been waiting for, but Rivka and his father are opposed to him going.

Jess arrives in L.A. and is picked up by music agent Molly Bell. At the studio where Lennox is recording, Jess is shocked to find his ballad is now being recorded as a hard rock song. Jess asks the producer if he can perform the song as a ballad, so Lennox can get an idea of the song's framing. This leads Molly to decide that Jess's performance is the way the song should be done. Lennox is not convinced, and fires the group.

Later, Molly corners Eddie Gibbs, a booking agent, and plays Jess's recording of "Love on the Rocks." Gibbs is impressed, but says he can't book anyone from just a tape recording. Molly arranges for Eddie to visit a club where Jess is playing. His performance convinces Eddie to book Jess as an opening act for Zane Gray's television special.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Cantor Rabinovich reminds Rivka that her place is by her husband's side. He pressures her to go to California to try to bring him home. Rivka arrives on Jess's opening night, and tells Molly Jess needs to return home. At the after party, Jess is met by an enthusiastic crowd and given a recording contract. Jess asks Rivka to stay, but she says she wants something different. Realizing she has lost him, she returns home.

Later, Jess confesses his love to Molly, telling her he and Rivka have split. As time passes, Jess' career success continues. His father visits, attempting to persuade him to come home, but Jess refuses, insisting he's making a name for himself. Jess reveals that he and Rivka are divorcing. When Molly suddenly arrives home, Jess's father angrily disowns his son and leaves in tears.

Heartbroken, Jess struggles at his recording sessions, taking out his anger on his band mates. He storms out of a recording session and drives away aimlessly. When his car runs out of gas, he hitchhikes and lives the life of a drifter for a few months, but eventually returns home when Bubba finds him and tells him Molly has given birth to his son. Molly once again meets Eddie Gibbs and persuades him to let Jess perform on Zane Gray's television special.

At rehearsal, the day before Yom Kippur, Jess learns that his father is in the hospital and won't be able to sing Kol Nidre at the synagogue. Jess is initially reluctant to go to his father, but Molly insists and he relents. Jess tries to make amends with his father, who refuses to speak to him until learning he now has a grandson, at which point the two finally reconcile.

The film ends with Jess performing "America," with his father and Molly in attendance.



The idea for the remake came from producer Jerry Leider, who saw Diamond on a 1976 television special. Leider believed that Diamond could have the same crossover appeal as fellow singers Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand, the latter of whom had recently starred in the successful remake of A Star is Born. Encouraged by the success of the remake, Leider decided to remake The Jazz Singer. However, an entire year would have to pass before rights to the remake could be figured out, as both Warner Bros. and United Artists claimed ownership.[1]

In the fall of 1977, MGM put the remake in development, with principal photography planned to begin in the fall of 1978. However, in September 1978, the studio dropped the remake, over "executives being anxious about the movie being 'too Jewish'", according to writer Stephen H. Foreman. Associated Film Distribution picked up the rights, and slated the film to begin photography again in May 1979 with Sidney J. Furie directing. However, in early 1979, Diamond underwent back surgery, and invoked a clause in his contract that allowed him to finish the original music before filming began. During this time, the studio and Leider did consider replacing Diamond with Barry Manilow, though ultimately decided against it. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Bisset was approached for the lead female role, but asked for too much money. Furie initially wanted Lucie Arnaz, but she was appearing on Broadway in They're Playing Our Song; Deborah Raffin was cast instead, after producers had seen her on a television film. [2] Laurence Olivier was cast as Cantor Rabinovitch, for a $1 million, ten-week contract.[1]

Filming was finally able to commence on January 7, 1980, though problems immediately started again. Diamond — who was making his acting debut — struggled in his transition from performing to acting. To compensate, Furie — who had wanted to change the script from the beginning — ordered several major rewrites. These rewrites led to creative differences between Furie and Foreman, and the latter departed to be replaced by Herbert Baker. Baker completely rewrote the script with a different ending, dramatically changing the character of Molly Bell in the process. Due to these changes, Raffin departed the project, and Furie was able to cast Arnaz, who talked to Raffin before taking the role.[1][2] However, filming was halted after the studio fired Furie on March 3. Richard Fleischer replaced Furie by the end of March, and filming was able to wrap on April 28.[1]

According to Arnaz, Diamond was nervous about his acting debut, and would become irritable when he could not do a scene; the directors handled this situation very differently. Whereas Furie — who, along with other crew members, was intimidated by Diamond's status as a successful musician — would have the script rewritten to tailor to Diamond, Fleischer would calm Diamond down and work with him on the scene.[2]


Box office[edit]

Lew Grade, who invested in the film, said the box-office "results were disappointing and we weren't able to recoup our prints and advertising costs". However, because the movie had been presold to American television for $4 million, the losses were minimized. Also, the soundtrack album was very successful and made more money than the film.[3] The film made over $27 million on a budget of $13 million.[1]


The irony of the film is that whilst Diamond's performance of a Jew trying to be black is arguably intended to be humorous (and he was indeed Jewish) he sits uncomfortably next to Olivier's overly stereotyped Jewish father, and if anything Diamonds underplaying of the Jewish angle further emphasises this. It is one of the low points in Olivier's otherwise stunning career.[editorializing] In comparison to the Jolson original, Jolson's blackface does at least echo the minstrel singers of the period, whereas Diamond's wish to pretend to be a real black singer does not echo any reality, except perhaps emphasizing the reality of how tough breaking into the music business can be for anyone. To this end it is impossible to decide if the film is intended to be a comedy, a drama, a musical or something else.[editorializing]

The remake received a predominance of negative reviews from critics, although some were positive. On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 37 out of 100, based on 8 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".[4] It also has a rating of 19% on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus on the website saying "Neil Diamond's foray into acting is a total miss in this gaudy and unconvincing remake, with Laurence Olivier on hand to deliver an excruciatingly campy performance."[5]

Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times, awarding it one star out of four, wrote that the remake "has so many things wrong with it that a review threatens to become a list".[6] His colleague, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, commended Arnaz' performance in the film, remarking that "what the daughter of Lucy and Desi does so well is perform quietly but confidently when everyone else is chewing the scenery", adding:

As for Diamond, he performs his ballads well enough. His major problem, however, is a script that forces him to do some very foolish things—such as segue from a bar mitzvah melody into a pop romance ditty; impersonate a washed-out Willie Nelson on a month of lost weekend drunken binges; and sing a closing production number (that he wrote) that includes a refrain from "America" ("My Country Tis of Thee.")

That song points up an interesting development in the history of "The Jazz Singer." The 1925 play spoke to the generation of immigrant children who wanted to break away from the tradition of their parents.

But 55 years later, when America's ethnic groups are rediscovering their traditions, we don't accept Jess' career move as easily. Frankly, we see his religious tradition as having much more value than the plastic Hollywood pop music world he yearns to inhabit. (Jolson wanted to sing jazz.) In other words, at the movie's end when we see old cantor Olivier capitulate and applaud his son in concert, we feel like saying, "Hey, cantor, haven't you got anything better to do than go to a Neil Diamond concert?"[7]

Another negative review came from Janet Maslin of The New York Times who stated: "Mr. Diamond, looking glum and seldom making eye contact with anyone, isn't enough of a focus for the outmoded story".[8] Time Out London called the appearance of Neil Diamond "the most cautious soft-rock superstar movie debut you'll ever get to see".[9] The only top critic to give a positive review of the film (according to Rotten Tomatoes) was Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader. He wrote that "Richard Fleischer's direction is appropriately close-in and small, and Diamond himself, while no actor, proves to be a commandingly intense, brooding presence".[10]

Diamond was nominated for both a Golden Globe Award and a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for the same role in this movie, winning the latter. The only other times an actor was nominated for both awards for the same performance was Pia Zadora and James Coco in 1982, with the former uniquely winning both.

The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John J. B. Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.[11]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Subject Nominee Result
ASCAP Awards Most Performed Feature Film Standards Neil Diamond for "America" Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Original Song Neil Diamond and Gilbert Bécaud for "Love on the Rocks" Nominated
Best Supporting Actress - Musical/Comedy Lucie Arnaz Nominated
Best Actor - Musical/Comedy Neil Diamond Nominated
Golden Raspberry Awards Worst Actor Won
Worst Supporting Actor Laurence Olivier Won
Worst Picture Nominated
Worst Director Sidney J. Furie and Richard Fleischer Nominated
Worst Original Song Neil Diamond for "You Baby" Nominated
Stinkers Bad Movie Awards Worst Supporting Actor Laurence Olivier Nominated
Most Annoying Fake Accent (Male) Nominated
Worst Remake Nominated


The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


Diamond's accompanying soundtrack was released on November 10, 1980, by Capitol Records. The soundtrack peaked at number three on the Billboard 200, and has been certified 5× Platinum since its release. The album spawned three singles — "Love on the Rocks", "Hello Again", and "America" — which all peaked within the top ten of the US Billboard Hot 100.


  1. ^ a b c d e "THE JAZZ SINGER (1980)". American Film Institute. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c "Lucie Arnaz on "The Jazz Singer"". YouTube. August 19, 2016. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  3. ^ Lew Grade, Still Dancing: My Story, William Collins & Sons 1987 p 252
  4. ^ "The Jazz Singer (1980) reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved April 5, 2020.
  5. ^ "The Jazz Singer". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Jazz Singer Movie Review & Film Summary (1980) - Roger Ebert".
  7. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 23, 1980). "'Jazz' is mostly in the key of corn". Chicago Tribune. p. 2, section 2.
  8. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 19, 1980). "Screen: 'The Jazz Singer'". The New York Times. Retrieved April 11, 2020.
  9. ^ "The Jazz Singer 1980, directed by Richard Fleischer | Film review". Time Out London.
  10. ^ Kehr, Dave. "The Jazz Singer". Chicago Reader.
  11. ^ Wilson, John (2005). The Official Razzie Movie Guide: Enjoying the Best of Hollywood's Worst. Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 0-446-69334-0.
  12. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-07-30.

External links[edit]