Blu-ray
For Fans
4 stars
List Price
$34.99
Amazon
$21.49 (39%)
3rd Party
$20.52
Usually ships in 24 hours Buy Now»
Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
2.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4 Stars
HD Audio Quality
3 Stars
Supplements
5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
For Fans

The Jazz Singer (Digibook)

Street Date:
January 8th, 2013
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
January 15th, 2013
Movie Release Year:
1927
Studio:
Warner Brothers
Length:
88 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

In today's world, we take sound for granted. Most of us have surround sound systems in our home. We can listen to anything in multi-channel sound that transports us to other worlds. But in the beginnings of cinema, sound wasn't something you could take for granted. For decades, film was a silent medium, told purely through visuals. And many masterpieces came out of this period, from the psychological prickliness of German Expressionism to the sweeping epics of D.W. Griffith. Then came the premiere of 'The Jazz Singer', and everything changed.

'The Jazz Singer' tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the young son of a prominent Jewish cantor. Jakie has a winning voice, but he prefers to sing jazz over traditional Jewish songs. His father cannot abide this, and kicks Jakie out. Later, as an adult, Jakie, now calling himself Jack Robin, manages to get a big break on Broadway, but his dying father wants him to return to his roots. He has to decide whether he's more Jack or Jakie, and whether or not he can reconcile the two disparate parts of his life.

'The Jazz Singer' is not entirely a sound film. Only a few segments feature singing and dialogue. Early sound movies were difficult to film, with the camera crew stuck in compartments that were nothing better than sweatboxes. It was much easier and less costly to only record a few scenes in sync, and let the rest play out silently. The result is a movie that fails to take full advantage of the power of sound or the mobility of silent filmmaking. 'The Jazz Singer' is frustratingly static. The focus of the film is not in creating an enthralling cinematic experience.

So what does 'The Jazz Singer' have? Well, it has Al Jolson, "The World's Greatest Entertainer." Jolson was a major star at the time of the film's release, with hit records and high profile live shows. He was a smash when he starred in a Vitaphone short called 'A Plantation Act', which prompted Warner Bros. to cast him in 'The Jazz Singer'. He certainly brings an unmistakable energy to the picture, and audiences of the period ate it up. The film was ultimately so successful that by 1930 silent films were already on the wane.

Of course, as time goes by, certain things that seem classic start to show signs of rust. Jolson's schmaltzy, sentimental approach is a tougher pill to swallow these days than it was during his peak. His singing style feels antiquated, and his performance style seems downright simplistic compared to the dynamic live performers we enjoy today. Unfortunately, the vocal performances are the highlights of 'The Jazz Singer'. The silent portions are typical low-grade silent fare, hammy, over the top, and dated to the Nth degree.

Other issues plague the picture. Jolson's use of blackface, acceptable at the time, is now seen as wholly inappropriate. Modern audiences might have issues watching it, even understanding that it was a different time. Also, the movie suffers from an ending that completely undermines the moral quandary around which the story revolves. One minute, Jack's being told that he'll never perform again if he chooses to be faithful to his Jewish roots, and yet at the end he's on stage doing his act.

Of course, it's easy to slag on the film now (although many contemporary critics pointed out the film's overly sentimental tone as a significant flaw as well), but its place in history is secured. It is the first feature film to have sync sound, and its overwhelming popularity is the reason that sound is so ubiquitous today. Historically, the film will remain significant for as long as film is an art form. But as a cinematic experience, 'The Jazz Singer' is often a chore to sit through.

The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats

Warner Bros. has lavished 'The Jazz Singer' with a three-disc special edition. The first disc is a Blu-ray, while the other two are DVDs. The whole set comes in digibook packaging, including 88 pages that tell the story of the film's production and includes many vintage photographs.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, this 1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks very good for a film originally shot in 1927. The source print is relatively free of blemishes or scratches, although transitions can get dicey. The film has a heavy sheen of grain that could at times be confused for noise, but a close look does in fact reveal it to be grain. There's a good level of detail in many shots, especially the close-ups. The contrast is also excellent, especially when Jolson puts on blackface. The sharp difference between the painted parts of his body and his exposed skin is likely why he put such makeup on in the first place. Blacks are inky and thick, while whites are bright and clear. The earlier scenes can suffer from a lack of detail, but once we get to Al Jolson appearing on the screen, the transfer looks very good.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

A 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track seems like overkill for a film like this, which only has a scant few minutes of synchronized sound. The singing and dialogue were taken from recovered Vitaphone discs, meaning that this is the best the movie will ever sound. On the whole, there's reasonable fidelity, if not a lot of range, and you will hear hiss. Still, given that this is the first feature film to have sync sound, the fact that this sounds as good as it does is a minor revelation.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

This three-disc set is loaded with features that almost fully replicate the DVD set from 2007. Missing are a few vintage trailers for other movies.

  • Commentary - This is a conversation between Ron Hutchison, who does Vitaphone restorations, and band leader Vince Giordano, who's done a lot of vintage music work for Hollywood productions. The two know a lot of trivia, including the shooting dates of specific sequences, but the track is very dry and academic. Still, an academic track is one with a lot of information, and this commentary does a good job of giving 'The Jazz Singer' a sense of context.
  • Al Jolson in 'A Plantation Act' (SD, 10 min) – The short that convinced Warner Bros. to cast Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer'. Looking at it now, it's harder to appreciate. Jolson appears in blackface and denim overalls against the backdrop of a cotton plantation. Jolson sings several songs. He's charming but it's hard to watch it for pure pleasure now. The short is in much worse condition than the feature film, both visually and aurally.
  • I Love To Singa (HD, 8 min) – A WB cartoon featuring "Owl Jolson", a young owl who loves to singa (about the moon-a and the june-a and the spring-a), despite his father's protestations. Far more enjoyable than the feature it's parodying, and much more pithy.
  • An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros.' Silver Jubilee (SD, 11 min) – An odd promotional piece that highlights many upcoming WB productions. It takes place at a dinner where a young girl ("Little Miss Vitaphone") introduces the stars of films WB is currently working on.
  • Hollywood Handicap (SD, 10 min) – An MGM short directed by Buster Keaton. This is not an effort you're going to see highlighting a set of the comedy genius' best work. The short has a cameo by Jolson.
  • A Day At Santa Anita (SD, 18 min) – An overly long, poorly reproduced Technicolor short. It suffers from poor color registration and a hair-wrenchingly awful performance by a child actress. Also features a Jolson cameo.
  • 1947 Lux Radio Broadcast (58 min) – A radio play of 'The Jazz Singer' starring Al Jolson. In a way, this is more interesting than the film, because you get sound all the way through.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 7 min) – Less a collection of clips from the movie and more of a introduction to the Vitaphone system and the idea of sync sound.
  • 'The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned To Talk' (SD, 85 min) – This feature length documentary tracks the evolution of sync sound on film, from Edison's earliest attempts all the way through to Charlie Chaplin's acceptance of film. 'The Jazz Singer' is mentioned, but isn't the main focus. This is the perfect complement to the audio commentary, with a host of interviewees who offer a good combination of technical information and personal anecdotes.
  • Excerpts from 'Gold Diggers of Broadway' (SD, 16 min) – These clips from an otherwise lost 1929 sound production aren’t fully complete themselves, with the finale having more sound than image.
  • The Voice From The Screen (SD, 16 min) – A vintage short that tells the details of sound on film. Redundant if you've seen the documentary.
  • Finding His Voice (SD, 11 min) – A Max Fleischer cartoon that explains how sound on film works. Slightly more entertaining than the other vintage shorts. Many clips from this are used in the documentary.
  • The Voice That Thrilled The World (SD, 18 min) – Yet another short about sound on film.
  • OK For Sound (SD, 20 min) – A celebratory short made by WB to pump themselves up as the innovators of sound.
  • When The Talkies Were Young (SD, 20 min) – Clips from multiple sound productions.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 7 min) – Less a collection of clips from the movie and more of a introduction to the Vitaphone system and the idea of sync sound.
  • Vitaphone Shorts (SD, 215 min) – The entire third disc is comprised of a series of Vitaphone shorts. These are mainly vaudeville acts and various musical groups, but they make up some of the most entertaining features in the entire set. There's a lot here, and the quality varies, but overall it's worth going through.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are no high-def exclusives.

Final Thoughts

'The Jazz Singer' is certainly historically significant, ushering in the sound era and changing the motion picture industry forever. How much you'll enjoy it depends entirely on your tolerance for dated material and Jolson's particular style of performance. The film looks and sounds as good as it can given its advance age. If you are interested in sound on film, this set is loaded with early sound material as well as a very comprehensive documentary that ably tracks the history of sound pictures. If you're already interested in the subject, this purchase is a no-brainer. If you're just curious about this historical artifact, it's more of a rental.

Technical Specs

  • Digibook
  • 3-Disc Set

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.33:1

Audio Formats

  • DTS HD Master Audio 1.0

Subtitles/Captions

  • English SDH, French, Spanish

Supplements

  • Audio commentary by film historians Ron Hutchinson (founder of The Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano
  • Collection of vintage cartoons and shorts (Al Jolson in A Plantation Act, An Intimate Dinner in Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee, I Love to Singa, Hollywood Handicap and A Day at Santa Anita)
  • The 1947 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast starring Al Jolson
  • Feature-length The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk documentary
  • 2 rare excerpts from Gold Diggers of Broadway (a 1929 WB film, most of which is considered lost)
  • Studio shorts celebrating the early sound era (Finding His Voice, The Voice That Thrilled the World, Okay for Sound, When Talkies Were Young and The Voice from the Screen)
  • Collection of rare Vitaphone shorts
  • Theatrical Trailer

All disc reviews at High-Def Digest are completed using the best consumer HD home theater products currently on the market. More about our gear.

Puzzled by the technical jargon in our reviews, or wondering how we assess and rate HD DVD and Blu-ray discs? Learn about our review methodology.

List Price
$34.99
Amazon
$21.49 (39%)
3rd Party
$20.52
Usually ships in 24 hours Buy Now»

Related reviews