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THE JAZZ SINGER
25th Anniversary Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Neil Diamond, Laurence Oliver, Lucie Arnaz, Catlin Adams, Franklyn Ajaye
Director:  Richard Fleischer
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 6.1, DTS ES 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  October 18, 2005

"You have too much talent to waste it on music that doesn't mean anything."

"It means something to ME."

Film **

The Jazz Singer is either a good film with some flaws or a flawed film with some good moments...I'm not sure which.  I've seen it quite a number of times in my life, so I guess it's fair to say I find things to like about it.  But this 25th anniversary edition DVD shows the film has one issue that many of us share:  it hasn't aged well.

As a kid who loved Neil Diamond, I was enthralled by the music and captivated by the story of a talented man trying to make something more of his life than what he was born into.  Looking at the movie with older eyes, I noticed things I never noticed before.  One, Diamond was probably too old to play a character struggling with what can only be described as an adolescent crisis.  Two, the great Laurence Olivier delivered what had to be one of his most thankless roles...it's hard to watch him and remember the man who brought Hamlet and Henry V to life. 

Diamond plays Yussel Rabinovitch, aka Jess Robin, a Jewish cantor in New York struggling to get by doing what his family has always done.  He's supported by his meek traditionalist father (Olivier) and his dutiful wife (Adams), but the music in him is burning a desire to try and do something great.

He gets his chance when his musical pal Bubba (Ajaye) plays his song "Love on the Rocks" for a top recording star in Los Angeles.  There, he meets the plucky, pretty Molly (Arnaz), who instantly believes in his talents and sets off to help him make his dream come true.  But none of this sets well with his family back on the other coast, who want Jess to return to his religious life and follow God rather than his own heart.  This leads to a crisis of identity for Jess and threatens to blow his biggest chance to date.

The story is based on the same play that became the original talking film starring Al Jolson, and in a kind of strange homage to that classic, there is even a scene of Neil performing in blackface.  It's not quite as tasteless as it sound; the scene isn't there to have fun at the expense of African Americans, but at the expense of Jess.  Though it's not as bad as it sounds, it's not quite as funny, either.

The real treats of the movie are Neil's great songs and the heartwarming performance by Arnaz.  Diamond is passable as an actor...there's nothing too demanding in the role, to be sure, but he delivers the performance the film requires.  But as a singer and songwriter, his talents are beyond reproach.  Some consider The Jazz Singer's soundtrack to be his finest hour, and with songs like "Hello Again", "America", "You Baby" and more, it's hard to argue.

But as far as screen presence goes, it's really Lucie Arnaz who's the star.  She's radiant, funny, and brings a wonderful sense of energy and romance to Molly.  I don't know why she didn't go on to become one of Hollywood's biggest stars, and watching this film again for the first time in many years, I still don't. 

Richard Fleischer, as director, does a serviceable job on a picture that was probably nothing more or less than a showcase for Neil Diamond.  The story is familiar, the outcome is predictable, but I can't say the movie isn't entertaining.  I can be critical of its faults, but then again, I always come back to it, and probably will again.

Video *1/2

Not one of Anchor Bay's better moments...the 25 year old movie looks every bit its age.  The anamorphic transfer is plagued by grain, softness and muted colors.  Watchable, but far from exemplary.

Audio **1/2

There are extended Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks included, and they mostly come to life during the musical numbers.  Diamond's classic songs sound better than ever, and are delivered with punch and dynamic range.  The rest of the film is a little thin sounding and doesn't offer much to impress.

Features *1/2

For an anniversary edition, this disc is a little on the light side.  There's a commentary with producer Jerry Leider (a decent trip down memory lane), a trailer, a TV spot, a poster and stills gallery, and bios for Diamond, Olivier and Fleischer.

Summary:

Neil Diamond may not have gone on to achieve movie immortality, but he had a day job to fall back on, which he did very well.  The Jazz Singer showcases some of his great music and offers a standard but serviceable storyline that has kept fans warm for 25 years now.  For them, this Anchor bay offering will be a happy hello again.

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