What The Jazz Singer Taught Me About Hollywood 'Romance'

The 1980 Neil Diamond film is certifiably terrible, but it's also an excellent, unintentional crash course in feminism—and Jewish culture.
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We lived in Spain when I was growing up. My dad was in the Navy and we were stationed at the Rota Naval Base in Andalucía, a small fishing village in Southern Spain. This was 1980. My brother and I, eight and nine respectively, went to a Department of Defense elementary school on base, but we lived out on the economy in downtown Rota, in a typical Spanish white-washed house with a terracotta tiled roof and iron bars on the windows. We didn’t have a telephone, and our TV only got two channels—both in Spanish, of course. The programming consisted mostly of bullfights (shockingly graphic and gory), endless soccer games, and the occasional political quasi-news program (very boring to us—typically a bunch of men smoking and yelling at each other).

We did, however, have a small collection of VHS tapes. Consequently there are about a dozen movies that my brother and I know by heart from having watched them in constant rotation over a three-year stretch. It’s a weird assortment (some of it quite age inappropriate for us, but the parenting styles were different in the ‘80s) running the gamut from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Midnight Express, The Wizard of Oz, Magnum Force, Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, Stroker Ace, and the 1980 Neil Diamond gem, The Jazz Singer. (There was also a copy of High School Memories, a porno flick that my dad kept on the highest bookshelf that he thought we didn’t know about, but we did. But that trauma is a whole other story.) 

I was on the elliptical machine the other day, flipping through channels, when I happened upon The Jazz Singer again for the first time in more than 30 years. The things that struck me the most as I watched it again were A: how I could still remember the dialog word for word despite not having seen it in three decades, and B: how much I learned from watching this movie when I was a kid. And I’m not just talking about how epic the hairstyles were back then. It occurred to me that The Jazz Singer was my first introduction to many of the practices and customs of a religion other than my own. It was also an early introduction to feminism.

Being raised Catholic, I didn’t have much, if any, exposure to other religions. So for years after watching The Jazz Singer, I’d un-ironically explain to people that much of what I knew about the customs and traditions of Jewish life I’d learned from Neil Diamond. I mistakenly thought the film was autobiographical for Diamond, not realizing until years later that it’s actually a remake of the 1920’s movie, starring Al Jolson.

Neil Diamond’s character, Yussel Rabinovitch, is a fifth-generation Cantor. He lives in a small, run-down apartment in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, a woman he had known since childhood, and his elderly father, also a Cantor, played by Laurence Olivier. Diamond (I’m just going to call Diamond's and Olivier’s characters Diamond and Olivier) sings at the Shul but yearns for more, as we discover when we see him getting out of bed in the middle of the night to pick out notes for what will become “Love on the Rocks” on his guitar.

His wife, Rivka, overhears him singing “Love on the rocks, ain’t no big surprise” (subtle), and knows her husband pines for something more. That scares her, as she is happy in the traditional life she has married into. “I like being married to a Cantor,” she later pleads with him. When his buddy, Bubba, asks him to fill in on a gig because one of the band members got arrested, Diamond finds himself singing under the stage name Jess Robin in a black club ... in blackface. He’s generally rocking the audience until one of the more observant audience members notices his hands are still white. A riot ensues, resulting in Neil Diamond and the band having to get bailed out of jail by Diamond’s bewildered father: “I thought you were at the library. The guard said there was no Yussel Rabinovitch, only a Jess Robin.”

In the next scene Diamond has to come clean with his dad and try to make him see his point of view: “Dad, I’m making music that people enjoy. What’s so terrible?” Olivier: “If it’s not so terrible, why all the sneaking around?” Diamond resolves to stay in the traditional role his father desires for him. 

Deus ex machina arrives shortly after, however, in the form of a phone call from Bubba, who has since moved to L.A. to pursue his music career. A popular rock star has heard “Love on the Rocks” and wants to record it, but the catch is that Diamond must fly out to L.A. For two weeks. Tomorrow! 

But the timing couldn’t be worse. It’s the night of a big celebration at the Shul for Pop. Diamond breaks the news to his father. “You’ll never come back,” Olivier cries. Diamond dances “Hava Nagila” with his sobbing father, kisses his distraught wife goodbye as she’s whisked past him in the circle dance, and Pan Ams it to the West Coast. He’s greeted by the Rock Star’s agent, Molly Bell, who quickly bonds with Diamond when she tells him her name is really Molly Bellengocavella.

The Rock Star (picture a slightly less punked out, somewhat disco version of Billy Idol) wants to record “Love on the Rocks” as a rock song, not the ballad Diamond had intended it to be. During a break after a temper tantrum the Rock Star throws because he wants the band to give him “more boom-boom-boom,” Diamond offers to sing it for him as a ballad. The Rock Star is unimpressed and fires him, but Molly sees that Diamond is the real deal and makes it her mission to make him the star he’s clearly meant to be. But can it be done in two weeks? Turns out it can, thanks to Bell’s indefatigable machinations. Diamond gets booked as the opening act for Zany Grey. The audience goes wild. A star is born. But the thrill is short. Rivka, Diamond’s wife, has arrived for the performance and is looking on from the wings as a clearly enraptured Molly Bell snaps photos. 

Rivka confronts Molly Bell and the conversation goes something like this:

Rivka: “You and Jess have done so much these two weeks. I wonder if there’s anything more you’ve done that he hasn’t told me about?”

Bell: “I offered him my body, but he settled for a pizza.”

Rivka: “You don’t understand, our life. It’s bigger than this. It’s tradition. It’s who we are. It’s in our blood.”

Bell: “I don’t understand the hold you people have on him.”

Diamond, having tasted the intoxicating nectar of success, is hooked. Also, he’s wearing a very snazzy purple shirt unbuttoned to the navel to best reveal his swarthy chest hair (not to be outdone by his winged hairdo and mutton chops). 

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Jennifer Barnett is the managing editor of The Atlantic magazine.

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