In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “At least the songs are good.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”
There are plenty of generation defining movies and milestone markers for the evolution of the medium of cinema over the years. But there are only a few truly seminal moments and films that stand out as absolute pivotal turning points. There’s The Birth of a Nation, inventing the concept of the feature film. There’s Eistentsein inventing the montage and redefining film editing in Battleship Potemkin. There’s the bursts of colour as Dorothy arrives in Oz in The Wizard of Oz. And there’s the birth of sound cinema with The Jazz Singer.
For generations, the Rabinowitz men have been the cantor singers in their synagogue. It’s a tradition that the current Cantor (Watner Oland) hopes will be continued by his son, Jackie. But Jackie prefers using his singing voice for jazz tunes at the local beer hall. When word of this reaches his father, Jackie cops a beating and runs away from home.
A decade or so later, and now played by Al Jolson, Jackie is performing under the name Jack Robin when he meets stage show dancer Mary (May MacVoy). With Mary’s help, Jack scores a part in a Broadway show, which means heading back to his native New York, where he hopes to reconcile with his parents.
The Jazz Singer might hold the distinction of being the world’s first talkie, but it’s far from a full sound picture. The majority of the movie still relies on title cards and over the top, pantomime style acting to get the story and dialogue across. The sound is saved mainly for the songs, and the occasional piece of spoken word surrounding them.
As a piece of film history, The Jazz Singer is fascinating and its importance can’t really be overstated. But as a piece of pure entertainment, it’s just a bit lame. I never really felt myself caring too much about Jack’s estrangement from his parents, and couldn’t muster any concern about whether or not he would ever make up with his father. And the relationship with Mary is dead on arrival.
But, at least the songs are good. It must have been a big decision for Warner Brothers when they were trying to decide who would headline this groundbreaking, huge budget game changer, and Al Jolson totally justifies his place here. He’s beyond charismatic when he sings, and even manages to make the hammy style of acting so prominent at the time seem a little less broad and more believable. Without Jolson, The Jazz Singer may have just been a novelty or spectacle. With him, it becomes more than just the world’s first talkie. It becomes surprisingly and timelessly engaging, whenever he’s allowed to do what he did best.