A guilty pleasure? Guilty as charged, your honour; this is a film that winds up with a middling to poor rating from critcs and audiences, but even writing about it conjures up waves of off-kilter enthusiasm. Richard Fleischer’s 1980 vehicle for Neil Diamond is something of a strange proposition; after all, what TF has Neil Diamond got to do with jazz anyway? The AOR Singer presumably wasn’t a title that appealed, but Diamond’s music has endured, and he certainly brought his A-game to providing an ace set of songs for the soundtrack.
America, Hello Again and Love On The Rocks are belters in any era, and it’s no surprise the soundtrack made more money than the film. On reflection, could there been conceptual errors behind a film that starts in rather offensive fashion with Neil Diamond in black-face? Probably; the point of this cultural-identity crisis is that only by blacking–up can Jess (Diamond) escape the Jewish traditions his father (Laurence Olivier) wants him to take on board, and the more popular Jess’ music is, the more his father disapproves.
‘Ay hef no son!’ is Cantor Rabonovich’s much-quoted dismissal of Jess’s career choice, but things end happily enough with Olivier jigging away in a stadium gig to the synth-blast opening of America. The Jazz Singer is a wildly amusing film, a vanity project from a star who has got little to be modest about; Diamond has maintained a sky-high level of stardom by touring and reinvention, and The Jazz Singer is exactly the kind of excessive project a real star creates.
I’ve reworked this review because during a previous posting, I used an image of Diamond in blackface to illustrate the oddness of some of the film’s conceits, and then watched horrified as the review was widely shared. If you have to ask if people might be offended, then it’s probably true that they will, and Diamond’s misculculations about race are of their time, some forty plus years ago. Instead, I’ll award bonus points for Paul Nicholas in a wonderfully awful cameo as a British rock star whose laughable speed-metal cover of Love on the Rocks irks Diamond, and with good reason.