The Jazz Singer would go down in history as the first feature-length film to incorporate sound into the production. “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” constantly makes canon lists of the best lines of film. It also ushered in a new film genre, the musical, that would come to dominate the studio offerings for decades afterward. But none of this gets to the real content of the film. Should the Jazz Singer be just a curious period piece or should it also be considered a great film? Before I answer this let me give you the plot summary.
Al Jolson (who was a very famous Broadway singer and whose origin story somewhat echoes the storyline of the movie) plays a young Jewish man living in New York City. His father is the Cantor (or singer of the Torah) in the local synagogue. This position has been in the family for five generations and he is expected to take up the same line of work. But Jakie (Al Jolson) wants nothing more than to sing jazz. He defies his father and takes off on a career path to accomplish this goal. Enter the woman interest, a rise from small clubs to the big times, a timely reuniting with the father on his deathbed and lots of singing and you essentially have the plot of the film.
One of the most troubling parts of this film is that Jakie performs “Mammy” songs in black face for a good portion of it. This choice of that the screenwriter and filmmaker to do this was originally to highlight Jakie’s love for his real mother through the songs he performs. But what it ultimately did, as the film grew older and we as a population learned that such things are harmful to the population being lambasted, was make the modern viewer highly uncomfortable. I was so uncomfortable in fact that I had to avert my eyes and focus on my phone, something I, on principle, try not to do. I had to be taken out of the picture by using my phone in order to truly cope with the picture on-screen. This usually only happens if I am watching something particularly gory. To me that nonchalant use of blackface was gory. It triggers my white guilt. It is hard to get past.
Beyond the black face problem, the film suffered from the odd juxtaposition of sound with no sound. The technology hadn’t advanced by this point to not necessitate the need for title cards explaining the action. So you had markers of a silent picture put right up next to a vocal banter between Al and his mother in between a song. It begs the question why couldn’t it all be sound? Well because that would be straining the technology too much. Some shorts had been voice tracked and some features had synchronized music before this feature, but the process was laborious and costly. I had to remind myself this at every turn.
Al Jolson was primarily a singer by profession, not an actor. So when he is singing, he is in his comfort zone. You can see how he was able to become so famous in his day. He does interesting things with his pitch and his phrasing. But the moment the film transitioned back into silent and he had to act, he fell apart. There was a whole scene where he is supposed to be conflicted about whether or not he should go see his dad and sing the Torah. This scene calls for intense emotion that can only, by necessity, be expressed in the face and body posture. Instead of tension, he has a smile on his face. He is the middle of putting on his makeup when he is told his father is dying and he still puts it on with a bouncy irreverence. He just could not be expressive when he didn’t have his songs to lean on. This is a problem because it is essentially his story and he is our emotional guide. Without him, other scenes that he isn’t in prominently also fall apart because the emotional guide isn’t as strong as it should be.
I honestly would not recommend watching this film unless you feel the need that you have to see it in order to better understand film history. (like I foolishly thought) What I learned from watching the film wasn’t anything I couldn’t have learned from the excerpts put online of the film or reading a book about it. In fact watching the whole film taints your viewpoint of this crucial part of film history. The big moguls get their hands on radical ways to put sound on pictures and the first thing they produce is a horrible racist travesty? Come on people think for one instant before you decide to sign off on something so awful.