As far as I know, "The Jazz Singer" (1980) is the only mainstream Hollywood film that can be considered Yom Kippur-themed. (No, "Atonement" doesn't count.) Thus I find myself thinking about the Neil Diamond film every year on Yom Kippur. Just FYI, despite the fact that the film is broadly labeled a bomb and that Lawrence Olivier himself derided it as a "piece of shit," it is considered a classic in my family and can be quoted from liberally by my relatives just as easily as "Godfather" and "Princess Bride."
This year, I found myself stewing over the film's bizarre racial message. To wit:
- Jess Robin's (Neil Diamond) best friend in the film is an African American singer named Bubba, who is trying to make a living as a member of an all-black band called the Four Brothers. When one of the Brothers gets arrested, Robin fills in at a gig at an all-black nightclub by wearing blackface (see picture above). Yes, blackface. Now, I know this is a shout-out to the 1927 Al Jolson version of the film, but still, blackface.
- In this same scene, an audience member outs Robin as caucasian. He notices this not from the fact that it's Neil Freaking Diamond on stage wearing shoe polish on his face (no, that was apparently convincing enough), but because the singer doesn't have any pigment on the back of his hands. The audience member (a pre-"Ghostbusters" Ernie Hudson) shouts, "He ain't no brother; he's a white boy!" A riot ensues. Yes, a riot. This was 1980. Every person in that audience could remember race riots in the 1960s fought over things like poverty, injustice, bigotry, assassinations.... This riot occurred because someone discovered that Neil Diamond was white.
- Robin later moves to L.A. (where Bubba has already gone) to try to break into popular music. His first audition is a big failure, so he, the Four Brothers, his manager Molly (Lucie Arnaz), and others decide to throw a really lame party. This involves Robin singing an idyllic song about the postbellum South ("The Robert E. Lee") right in Bubba's face.
- Later, after a taste of success, Robin freaks out and hitchhikes to the Deep South, where he fronts a country/western band in local honky-tonk. While he's told no one where he went, Bubba nonetheless finds him, presumably due to some magical negro powers or something.
Yeah, it's a weird movie. It's also ripe for a remake. Maybe they should mix things up a bit and cast Natalie Portman as the cantor longing to stray from her Brooklyn roots. Streisand could play her cantor mother. Just a thought.