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Does this early-sound-era Al Jolson picture stand tall as a bona fide movie classic....?
Warner / 89 Minutes / 1927 / Unrated / Street Date: January 8, 2013
It’s a shame that a movie can be implicitly, indelibly important, and yet not be all that good. Unfortunately, in the case of movies like The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer, these benchmarks of movie history painfully and woefully bear witness. I still remember watching Birth of a Nation in my first film class thinking that it was a joke – something the seniors drummed up to haze us freshmen. One of Hollywood’s most defining cinematic movies is about how the KKK comes to town and saves the day? For real?
Re-approaching The Jazz Singer drummed up a similar reaction in me. Yes, obviously the blackface and cries of ‘Mammy!’ are almost impossible to believe (call it a ‘product of its time’ if you must, but the fact remains that the film is offensive as hell). But racial offenses aside, the real issue that I keep coming back to is that the film really isn’t much of anything. At the very least, Birth of a Nation was formally and rhetorically progressive – no one had ever made a movie with quite that much epic abandon at the time. But The Jazz Singer is simply a dull movie that happened to feature one of cinema’s most famous advents: recorded sound.
The biggest shock bound to inspire folks to shrug is that in this ninety-minute movie, there are maybe two or three minutes of recorded ‘dialogue’. I suppose Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it’s unreasonable to expect the film to go overboard with the utilization of its new technologies, but regardless of machine invention, The Jazz Singer more a lucky film in the right place at the right time rather than a noble film that deserves its status in film Valhalla.
That being said, the first dialogue moment is quite something. At a point while Al Jolson belts out “Dirty Hands, Dirty Faces” (can you guess what the song’s about?), he begins to interact with his cabaret crowd, looking over at his audience and exclaiming, “Wait a minute – you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” It’s quite a moment. On par with the train arriving at Ciotat Station in the Lumiere Brothers’ seminal 1895 short film, this moment signals a new piece of the cinematic puzzle, so outside the realm of The Jazz Singer’s ho-hum story, the moment carries a certain heft to it.
Ironically this somehow makes the rest of the film seem even more unbearable. The story’s basic aim has potential: a boy (Golsen) has more interest in jazz than the synagogue traditions his father insists he focuses on, so the boy heads to the big city only to find his only job opportunities necessitate him being, well, black. The premise isn’t bland, but its presentation definitely is. The music of The Jazz Singer is fine, and it has moments of technical grandeur. But as a full-length film, it’s just another brick in the wall - a culturally offensive brick that just so happens to be the first full-length feature film to include synchronized sound.