#90 The Jazz Singer

#90 The Jazz Singer (1927)

jazz singer

So The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length “talkie”, popularizing the threadbare cinematic technique of making it so that the characters that appear to be moving on the screen now also appear to be saying words at the same time. It’s really not that impressive. That’s why I was so pleased that The Artist won best picture last year. It’s about time that Hollywood realized how redundant and insulting synchronized dialogue is. It’s about damn time that Hollywood stopped dumbing down their movies with all that talking! Why do I need to hear them say the words? I can get the gist of what the actors are saying by watching them act. I’m not an idiot. Show. Don’t tell. If absolutely necessary, just flash a sentence on the screen and get back to the action. I’m sick of movies filled with actors sitting around on their backsides, just talking to each other. I don’t go to the movies to hear people talk. Before the movie starts they usually run a warning asking people to silence their phones and not talk during the film. I wish someone would show that clip to the actors. It’s just plain rude.

Al Jolson is Jakie Rabinowitz, a young Jewish lad who wants to sing ragtime. His father is the cantor at the synagogue and expects Jackie to follow in his footsteps just as he followed his father’s. When his father finds him singing in a saloon, he drags Jakie home and whips him. Jakie runs away to chase his dream of becoming a singing sensation. Which he achieves, naturally. But Jakie must make a choice. Will he follow the old world traditions of his family or will he identify with the new “religion” of modern jazz culture?

Toward the end of the film Jolson performs in blackface. It’s interesting to note that in his attempt to break ties to the traditions of his family and assimilate into his adopted modern theater culture, he uses a racist performance tradition to create an alternate version of himself. His mother sees him in the makeup in his dressing room and she doesn’t recognize him. Somebody says “It sounds like him – but looks like his shadow.” Is Jolson’s character using racism as a way to mask his Jewish identity, in much the same way he drops his last name for less “offensive” Jakie Robin? Is it impossible for Jakie Rabinowitz to take part in the roaring twenties without continually burying himself under layers and layers of pseudonyms and masks and disguises? Is there no way to hold onto your soul in America? Must we all drink deep from the cup of bigotry?

For a movie that is always praised for being the first talkie, it sure it silent. But when the recorded dialogue and music kick in (which I think is twice, maybe three times?), it really does feel like magic. The scene that best illustrates this is when Jolson sings Blue Skies to his mother on the family piano. It had been a silent film for so long, dramatic music playing over the acting and the text and then BANG. There it is. He’s talking, and his words are corresponding perfectly with his lips and it really feels magical.

I can imagine how fantastic it must have been to watch this movie in a theater in 1927. Really wish they left the racist parts out. Maybe if they remake it, they’ll find a way to do this without the racist crap?

Oh. Oh no.

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