The son of a Jewish Cantor must defy his father in order to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz singer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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.