Then and Now: The Jazz Singer

Welcome to the first installment of what should be a fun film review series here at The Scoop! My objective is to select films that have been remade, and see how the remakes stack up against the originals. The fun will come when the details and distinguishing features of each are discussed. As always, this series is meant to inspire debate and conversation.

We start with The Jazz Singer, originally made in 1927, starring Al Jolson as Jakie Rabionvitch/Jack Robin. Its comparison is the 1980 iteration starring Neil Diamond as Yussel Rabinovitch/Jess Robin.

The Story

the jazz singer jolson posterCantor Rabinovitch is the worship leader of his temple. He is training his young son, who also possesses a great vocal talent, in the ways of Hebrew worship. This is because he is to be the sixth generation Rabinovitch to be a cantor, in service to God through holy song. Jakie/Yussel, however, appreciates all types of music, and feels that he’s meant to share his voice with the congregation of the world, not just a synagogue.

Father and son clash over this spurning of familial tradition, and they part ways on the worst of terms. Several years after Jakie/Yussel leaves, he becomes a famous singer and gains quite a bit of popularity. He even goes as far as to take on a stage name: Jack Robin/Jess Robin. The night before a big performance, he is informed that his father is ill and will not be able to lead the Yom Kippur worship service. This is a very sacred service, as Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, and a Rabinovitch has led it for five generations.

A family friend asks Jakie/Yussel to return, make amends with his father, and lead the service in his stead. He decides to choose family and faith over his popularity, and returns to lead the service. Father and son are reconciled and peace is restored to the Rabinovitch family.

The Similarities

the jazz singer diamond posterIn each film, both Jakie and Yussel are pressured by their fathers to follow in line with the family tradition and become the next cantor of their synagogue. They also manage to engage their audiences via popular music of the day. In the 1927 original, Jolson was featured singing the classic Blue Skies, while Diamond used the occasion in 1980 to introduce the world to America, Love on the Rocks and Hello Again.

Interesting note: Jolson‘s original is mostly silent, but helped usher in a transition to “talkies” by featuring a complete soundtrack for the movie that was available for purchase after the release of the film.

The big payoff is when Jakie/Yussel returns on Yom Kippur to lead the congregation in a prayer called the Kol Nidre. It’s a powerful moment seeing the son finally stepping up to lead the congregation, as his father had wished of him.

Here is Jolson‘s take:

Here is Diamond‘s take:

The Differences 

This is where this particular duo of movies gets interesting. The years 1927 and 1980 look equally intriguing and odd to my 2015 eyes, especially when watching the Jolson version.

The biggest difference between the two is the relationship between father and son. In the Jolson original, he is presented as a stubborn youth who won’t conform to his father’s wishes and revolts and runs away. In the Diamond remake, he gets his father’s blessing to go record a demo track in LA for two weeks. While there, he gets discovered and tells his father he will probably remain there and not come home.

This leads to change number two.

neil diamond the jazz singer sceneJakie runs away from his father and loving mother and becomes the star of a music review show. There, as Jack, he meets and falls for a lovely dancer, who encourages his pursuit of fame. Jakie‘s disregard for his God-given voice is what sets his father off. Yussel leaves behind his cantor father AND a wife, Rivka, who is also his high school sweetheart. While in LA, he falls for his talent agent (played by Lucille Ball‘s daughter, Lucie Arnaz) and divorces Rivka. This is what shames Yussel‘s father the most, and causes Cantor Rabinovitch to ceremoniously proclaim Yussel dead.

al jolson the jazz singer sceneThe most interesting difference is the use of blackface by Jakie/Jesse in a musical performance. In Jolson‘s day, blackface (the art of applying dark makeup to one’s face) was used by white entertainers to portray black characters in song. Jolson uses it prominently in the original, whereas Diamond uses it as an “homage” in a scene where he is filling in for a friend who is part of a singing group performing at a club specifically for an all-black audience. As accepted as it was in Jolson‘s day, modern eyes will have trouble adjusting to either use of a bye-gone theatrical device, and it does come across as plain silly in the 1980 film.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the story is one that not many may identify with at face value in 2015. What may echo with viewers, though, is the sense of achievement that one can feel when pursing a dream, whether it’s to be famous or return home and reconcile a broken relationship. As I mentioned near the beginning, both eras represented are not easy to relate to as presented, and some things in both come across as silly. If anything, both singers do a wonderful job of presenting popular music to their newfound congregations. I led with this one, though, because of my musical bent, and to truly watch and observe the cultural and cinematic differences of 50 or so years.

Do you have a suggestion for this series? Contact Sarah Powers on Twitter at @SPow26.



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