Every Sunday in September, Film School Rejects will present a musical that was made before you were born and tell you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Musicals presents the story of a young Jewish man struggling between his career and his family who revolutionizes Hollywood by speaking to the audience for the first time. It’s Al Jolson as The Jazz Singer.
Last week’s feature on Singin’ in the Rain was a revelation in its obsession with movie history. After all, that movie is one made by the generation that would have been influenced by the sound revolution that took place in the late 1920s. It’s a love letter and an exploration – which can be said with confidence considering how they treat the one character who will most likely be out on her flapper dress because of the introduction of sound to filmmaking.
The catalyst movie at the center of Singin’ in the Rain’s plot, the movie that changed the game forever, is The Jazz Singer.
Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) is disowned by his father for singing jazz, so he changes his name to Jack Robin and heads out to build a career as an entertainer. With a healthy relationship with his mother and a strained alienation from his father, he eventually has to choose between the success of an opening night on Broadway and showing his commitment to his faith, his heritage, and his family.
There had been talking in pictures before. Most notably, D.W. Griffith’s Dream Street which featured an intro spoken by the man himself as well as a musical sequence and some background noise. It would prove to be ahead of its time as there were almost zero theaters that could handle the sound process. Six years later, the hurried tones of Al Jolson shouting “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” would slam right into the audience and cause an ear drumbeat that would resonate throughout all of Hollywood.
Like color after it, sound had given the audience something new and exciting – one more reason to drop a few cents on heading into the movie theater. It’s an important moment to look back on, especially in the middle of what some would call a new revolution that involves 3D.
However, as much as the impact of the film is groundbreaking, it’s even more important not to lose sight of what a fantastic movie it is regardless of its cultural context.
The Jazz Singer is an exploration of culture, family, show business, inter-faith relationships and religion all bundled together in black face and sent on its way with a song. The complexity delivered in this movie with a smile slapped on is laudable. Any movie that can successfully bring the audience into the family home of a young man promising his mother a better life and interrupt that rooftop happiness with familial exile deserves credit where credit is due. In the hands of lesser talent, the movie would seem bi-polar (jumping from hot jazz sequences to father-son issues with an inability to choose between genres), but director Alan Crosland and the unmitigated energy of Al Jolson deliver heartache and heartfelt songs without losing stride.
That is the core issue waiting inside the film – what makes you who you are? Jack Robin is, at the very least, a shunned Jew who puts on black face and sings jazz tunes as an on-stage persona while dating a non-Jewish woman. To say he’s a man with inner turmoil is an understatement, and to place that in front of a soundtrack of “Blue Skies” is a brilliant move that takes the complexity of the character’s emotions and places them in a language the audience can understand (and can hear).
The music is no different. Facing its own turmoil, the score is inhabited by Jewish prayers and beer hall anthems alike. Of course, they are all sung by incredible talents – some of whom are uncredited and lost to history. Jolson, of course, is featured the most with a typical blustery style that sounded like he had a velvet frog stuck permanently in his throat.
It’s appropriate that a film about a young man torn between leaving his past behind in order to seek a new age would end up being the turning point for an entire art form. It rings in the new while paying tribute to its heritage as successfully as films that came after it would – incorporating sound while maintaining many of the conventions on which film was built. Sure, actors and actresses had to learn to deliver lines like real people instead of over-expressive soap opera stars, but the basics were still firmly in place. They just had microphones hooked up to them.
It’s likely that no one will watch this film and keep thinking about how revolutionary it is. Not now. It’s more likely that most will watch this film and be in awe of its talent and the way that talent is on display. In truth, the film features a shouting Jolson on stage, a letter read out loud, the musical numbers, and a single scene of dialog (that’s, oddly enough, ended by the phrase “Stop it!”). The movie is overwhelmingly silent. The point is that a small amount was all the sound it took to change the business, and that the main reason audiences went crazy for this film was most likely the film itself. Even though sound was a breath of fresh noise, it’s really The Jazz Singer’s quality that helped propel that revolution. Without a solid movie, sound might have just as easily been seen as a gimmick that didn’t quite work.