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.

EMI Films

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).

It’s over for Diamond and Rivka. Rivka will return to the traditional life she loves. Diamond will stay in California to pursue his dream. There will be a divorce. But it’s okay. Rivka is at peace with it. “I have everything I want,” she claims, which conveniently frees Diamond up to pursue his newfound success and his attraction to Molly Bell. Liberated of his old-world wifely impediment (we never see Rivka again), his career takes off. He cuts an album. He and Molly are a couple. She wears a white napkin on her head and waves her hands over the candles. She makes him a ham. But Jewish people can’t eat ham! She covers her face with her hands in embarrassment upon realizing her adorable mistake.

Then Papa ruins everything when he unexpectedly shows up at Diamond’s door one sunny California afternoon (no one in this family announces when they are traveling across the country to drop in on Diamond). “No piazza, no gondolas? And this is Venice?,” says the addled Olivier. “Come in, Pop,” says Diamond.  But lo, there is no thing on the door that Jewish people kiss (which I now know is a Mezuzah), which signals the first sign of trouble. The second, and the breaking point, is when Bell shows up holding two bags of groceries. It’s clear they are living together. In sin. “I haff no son!” cries Papa as he rips his coat, signaling that Diamond is now dead to him. Also it’s pretty impressive that he can rip that wool with his bare hands. It looks like a pretty high-quality, strong weave.

Riddled with guilt and battling his inner demons, Diamond lashes out at his band mates and Molly Bell. “I don’t need any of you” he says as he storms out, jumps into his convertible mustang, and floors it out of the parking lot, forcing another car off the road and a nearby police officer to run over, arms waving, left to stare in disbelief. Diamond speeds away leaving a cloud of dust behind on his quest to find himself, which involves a very prolonged shot of him driving down the highway, the wind whipping through his magnificent hair. That's until he runs out of gas, abandons the mustang on the side of the road (but not before trying in vain to start it a few times—as if running out of gas didn’t occur to him), grabs his leather jacket, thumbs it and hitches rides with big rig truckers, whom he entertains with his guitar. He also grows a full-on country and western beard, acquires himself a full-gallon cowboy hat and boots, and travels with only a small duffle bag and his guitar for company.

“I need a job,” he says as he pulls himself up to the bar of some watering hole. “Hell, I’ve got a few minutes,” the jolly barkeep says, “Play me something.” “What do you want to hear?” asks Diamond in what appears to be a newly affected southern accent. “’You Are My Sunshine,’” says the barkeep. Diamond’s got the job. Business is booming for the delighted barkeep who can now sit on the other side of the bar and enjoy his oversized plate of ribs since Diamond is packing ‘em in for a full house night after night. Looks like Diamond has settled into his new life until his old buddy, Bubba, shows up. “One musician can always find another” he explains, proffering a photo of Diamond’s new son, Charlie Parker Rabinovitch, born yesterday to proud mom Molly Bell.

Diamond hightails it back to California. There he finds Molly Bell—on a wool blanket on the beach with a giant baby who is sporting nothing but a diaper in what seems to be far too cold and blustery a day to have an infant out on the beach with sand blowing everywhere, but who’s to say? Parenting styles were different in the ‘80s. Diamond watches Molly Bell and his giant baby from a perch about 10 yards back, but she senses him and turns slowly, the drama unfolding as “Hello Again” plays in the background. They walk towards each other slowly and meet in a passionate embrace. She takes him back instantly despite that fact that he shows up after having disappeared for what has to be a minimum of nine months.

“That’s very convenient for him, isn’t it?” I remember my mother saying from her seat next to me on our sectional couch as she inhaled so fiercely from her Marlboro that her lips were like two taught white rubber bands. I guess, as a Navy wife frequently left for months at a time to raise two kids under the age of two while her husband was deployed out to sea, she wasn’t buying into this. My mom would make a similar observation, years later, of Brad Pitt’s odyssey in Legends of the Fall, which prompted me to confront the classmate who had recommended the film as being “the epitome of romantic” with my mom’s version: Pitt’s a selfish, misogynist ass who left his fiancé, Julia Ormond, with no hope for a future, ultimately bringing her to blow her brains out after he sought remedies for his inner demons in faraway lands in the arms of various native women, only to show back up and marry someone else. “I hadn’t looked at it that way, but I see your point,” the classmate replied.

Back in The Jazz Singer, Molly Bell wastes no time getting Diamond’s career back on track. Plucky and tenacious, she gets him the big gig—three minutes on national TV. In New York. Also, the timing is rather auspicious. “It’s Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. It’s time to make things right with your father,” Molly Bell insists.

Diamond surprises his dad by showing up to sing at Yom Kippur. Papa, still refusing to acknowledge that he has a son, cannot resist the news that he has a grandson “with Mama’s smile and your eyes.” There is peace. Diamond goes on to rock another audience with “America.” The credits roll.

The movie was actually a critical flop, universally panned for a variety of reasons including Laurence Olivier’s ridiculous overacting—he and Diamond won Golden Raspberry awards in, respectively, the Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Actor categories. It did, however, do pretty well commercially, and produced some of Neil Diamond’s most popular songs: “America,” “Hello Again,” and “Love on the Rocks.”

And it occurred to me from my perch on the elliptical machine, 30 years after having first watched this movie, that I owe Neil Diamond a debt of gratitude. Not only for demystifying some of the basics of Jewish culture and opening up my eyes to a world of customs and traditions outside my own, but because it gave me (and my brother) the opportunity to see this film through my mom’s lens—teaching me at a young age to recognize the flaws in the “romantic” tropes Hollywood packages up. Not to mention dazzling me with a time capsule capturing the splendor of the late 70’s. What’s so terrible about that?