The Jazz Singer (1927), or The Voice Of The Giant

15 10 2009

Note: How about that old-time announcer, huh? Couldn’t even read his lines beforehand; he was quite clearly reading the cue cards the whole time! What a lazy bum!

The birth of the talkie is certainly an event that should never be forgotten. It has unquestionably changed the way the medium has been used, and rare is the occasion today that a movie has even a tiny bit of silence in it. But when all you hear out of a motion picture the entire duration of its existence is the pop and sizzle of a hot bulb touching celluloid, the addition of sound was quite a feat for a lot of people, and for most of the world, there was no going back. Today’s feature was the first motion picture to incorporate sound. It’s called The Jazz Singer, and it’s basically a promo for real-life jazz singer Al Jolson’s live act. If features dialog spoken by him as well as six of his smokin’ tunes. As a movie, it’s interesting, but it’s honestly a bit of a pariah compared to what it represented as a technological advancement.

It’s about the constant strain of a strict father on his son and the struggle to reconcile with one’s heritage. Kinda. Young Jakie Rabinowitz is a tiny¬† Jewish boy who loves the swinging new music known as jazz! He can’t get enough of it, and what’s more is that he can’t stand the idea of being a cantor like his father and his father before him. He wants to go to the clubs and sing some tunes, but his father forbids it, calling it nonsense and ridiculousness, and spanking him in the process. So, in response to this, Jakie runs away, only bringing a picture of his sweet mom to remind him of his past. So, it’s years later, and Jakie has reappeared in the world as a performer named Jack Robin. He is called up to sing a few songs, and really wows the crowd at the local cabaret. He still writes his mother, but has had no dealings with his father in over a decade. He’s gone far away from his roots, even as far as to be romantically involved with a shiksa (AHHHHHHH!!!!). So he’s his own man now, but the memory f his old life still haunts him, and when his father runs ill, he is forced to make a terrible decision; keep his fortune and fame growing as a talented jazz singer and forget about his dying old man, or singing for his father one last time before he dies, bringing them together again but possibly ruining his career. What will he do? What CAN he do?

Perhaps a powerful film for the time, The Jazz Singer does not age well. It has too much going against it, and not just the creeping advance of time. As you know, I have no problem with older films, but this one just doesn’t have a whole lot to relate it to the young man or woman of 2009. The story is somewhat inspirational, and I like what it says about the dangers of assimilation, but the characters are depth-less caricatures with little room to move in the face of Jolson’s electric jazz performances.

And how are the performances? Well, if you like this clean, white-boy jazz so popular with the youth of the 20s, I highly recommend them. Songs like “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” and “My Mammy” are real show-stoppers, and one simply cannot deny the energy present in “Toot Toot Tootsie” (that whistling is AMAZING!). It’s not bad, but he played it exceptionally safe, unlike the wilder New Orleans jazz he grew up with, and I would have loved to have seen him play some of these tunes with some real verve.

And that brings us to an important part of The Jazz Singer; blackface. Al Jolson was a performer who brought the rich musical tradition of Louisianan black folk to the white audiences in blackface, which he used to honor the originators of the music, who were not allowed in to entertain because of the segregation present at the time. Jolson, from a historical standpoint, was a man who fought for civil rights in a time when it could kill a career to speak against the trends. He respected the music and the people, and blackface to him was a way of representing them. It was NOT a minstrel show he put on, as many might make it out to be, and many jazz artists at the time loved and respected Jolson for his many contributions to both the medium of jazz and the fight for civil rights. However, and I will certainly admit this, it is still offensive to watch, no matter the reasons for it, and if you are one who can see the historical background of it and sill not tolerate it, I understand your position. But bear in mind both that the blackface in THIS particular film has a unique relevance to the story and its message, and that this is 1927, and the idea of the minstrel show as an affront to decency was not yet an idea comprehended by mainstream America, so the producers, the director, and Jolson himself probably felt this was a great triumph for African-Americans.

So I don’t know how you want to look at it. The Jazz Singer is an undeniable breakthrough whose contributions cannot be overestimated, and that is a fact. Also, some of the performances in the film, like the musical stylings of Al Jolson and May McAvoy as the loving shiksa Mary, aren’t bad at all. But it hasn’t aged too well in the grand scheme of things, especially in the “racial sensitivity” department. Either way, if you’re a student of cinema, as I think we all are, in a way, it should be something that we all see once for posterity’s sake and its immense achievement. But, as a movie, I can only give The Jazz Singer 5 1/2 white folks talking about black folks out of 10. Sorry!

Tomorrow I have something special lined up for you guys! Keep posted for more details!!!

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