This 1980 remake of the Al Jolson classic (first mounted on stage in 1925 and filmed 1927) is actually the fourth film version of the story. Here, following in the footsteps of MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY's Danny Thomas...
and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR's Jerry Lewis...
...recording superstar Neil Diamond takes on the demanding role of synagogue cantor Yussel Rabinovich (aka Jess Robin) and proves that he is not a triple-threat, or even a double-threat - just a threat.
Interesting side note: this film was directed by Richard Fleischer, also known for Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and the cult classic MANDINGO. Talk about range!
For 29 years, I've avoided this film, but something finally drew me to it - perhaps the spirit of multiculturalism that is in the air with tomorrow's inauguration or maybe a "bad movie" angel tapped me on the shoulder? Well, either way...bring on it, Neil!
The film opens with a patriotic diversity montage showing New Yorkers of every race, creed, color and stereotype while Neil's hit America, a rousing tribute to immigrants, blasts bombastically into our brains. After the anthem, we settle in on Neil, who is singing a Hebrew prayer in an Orthodox Jewish temple. His African American friend comes to see him - taking a seat in the back - his yarmulke (aka "beanie") keeps falling off because he has an Afro. This is comedy.
After the religious ceremony, Neil's friend rushes him outta the sacred place, and he tries to coax his Jewish lady friend to join them at a club. She refuses. Turns out it's an all black club and Neil is part of the entertainment! Yes - Neil makes his film debut in BLACKFACE! In an obvious homage to the Jolson original, Neil is part of a soul quartet, only he's wearing really bad makeup and wig that makes him look more like an unfortunate mix of Greg Brady, Eddie Munster and the Incredible Hulk.
It would be offensive, if it wasn't so damn ridiculous. So Neil and his band are performing in front of an all-black audience, but the gig is over when someone in the audience notices that his hands are caucasian! A fight breaks out and everyone gets arrested. Luckily Neil's Cantor papa, Laurence Olivier (!) comes to bail him out, and then follows with the question of the day "It's not tough enough being a Jew?". Papa is upset that Yussel is going by the name Jess-denying his heritage and birthright. I think.Next Neil goes to visit his Jewish girl, who, of course, is a Herbew teacher. It it turns out she's his wife - Rivka! We soon learn that his band has a gig in L.A., but Jess doesn't join them because of his responsibilites at the temple. After helping a teen prepare for his Bar Mitzvah, Neil sings Love on the Rocks...and then he gets a call from his black friend (Bubba, played by comedian Franklyn Ajaye) telling him that a powerful producer wants to record that very song - the next day! He tells Rivka that he's gotta go to L.A. cause he's gonna have a hit song. Talk about jumping the gun! What's Papa gonna say? Before Jess can tell Papa, about his L.A.trip, Papa satrts lamenting to Jess about a bad dream that he had in Jess leaves him and doesn't come back. Let the guilt begin! Then Jess tells him about L.A. trip and Papa has a crying tantrum- but Jess quickly cheers him up by singing Hava Nagila - the classic Hebrew folk song (translation: "Let us rejoice").
So then he's off to big, bad Los Angeles to meet producer Keith Lennox! Jess is greeted at the airport by none other than Lucie Arnaz-
the daughter of showbiz legends Lucy and Desi, who looks like neither! As soon as they meet, the requisite palm tree and earthquake jokes begin. Once at the recording session - we discover that British madman Lennox has turned Jess's beautiful ballad, Love on the Rocks into a hard-edged new wave tune. In response, Neil sings the crap of of the tune in his inimitable style. Lennox reacts by telling Jess to "piss off..." and to take the four clowns with him. Lucie (Molly) tells Lennox thats the way the song should be sung - and she gets fired too! To celebrate their unemployment, the fivesome have party where Jess sings a song about Robert E. Lee. He asks Molly if she has any Charlie Parker records (finally somebody mentions JAZZ!) She replies "are you kidding? "Bird" is my middle name!" So, Molly Bird decides to take Jess under her wing and champion his talent (based on his one song). He tells her he's next in line to be the Cantor, and he eventually tells her he's married, so he can't live in sin with her. Molly has a plan - first she carjacks a booking agent, forcing him to listen to a tape of Jess's song. After this, Jess sings part of a new song, Hello, Again to Molly - proving he has more than one song in his bag. They almost kiss - but they don't. Molly tells him to finish writing the song, for her. She tries to seduce him, by offering him her body, but he refuses - he'd rather have pizza.
So Jess books a gig opening for popular stand up comic Zany Gray - but his wife Rivka gives him a guilt trip over the phone. He starts his set by playing an harmonica and gets heckled by an audience member who calls him a "turkey". Harsh. Jess then breaks into a lounge-y ditty called Summer Love - suddenly his wife Rivka shows up! Like, she just jumped on a plane and knew exactly where to find him! She introduces herself to Molly backstage and asks her if they've slept together. Molly says he ate pizza, but didn't touch her. Rivka's pleased.By the second song, the auidience is in his hands - he gets a standing ovation. For just two songs? Highly unlikely. After the show, Rivvy (what he calls her) tells him she wants him to come home to NY to her and Papa - and they have the most polite argument ever filmed. She leaves, he stays. The next day Molly introduces Jess to her hairy friend named Tommy who she's planning on sailing to Mexico with. Jess gets jealous - leading to a calypso-themed montage of them falling in love. Through the montage, we learn that Lucie is just like her zany redhead mother after all - because she cooks him a ham! Oh Lucie!!!! They also attend a recording session, ride a bicycle built for two...and then she puts a schmata on her head and holy lights candles just like Lucy in MAME during Open a New Window! They kiss. Then they do it. And just when things seem to be going good for Jess, Papa shows up in L.A.- at Molly's house- to give Jess a guilt trip! Oy vey! Jess introduces Papa to Molly - and he immediately starts crying! Again with the waterworks? "No, No!!!!!!!" he excalims and then he begins tearing at his clothing as the music swells. Apparently when a Jew tears at their clothes - they are in mourning. Who knew? Then Jess records a song called When Does Jerusalem Close? More like - When Does This Movie End????
All this family drama causes Jess to become super cranky, and to make things worse we learn that Molly is pregnant! But before she can tell Jess, he takes off on a road trip – driving out into the desert until his car breaks down. Then he hops on a bus to Laredo, Texas - missing his big chance to be on Zany Gray's big TV special. Oh well. Over the course of time Jess grows a beard, hitchhikes, smokes and wings up in a bar. A bartender (who I think is Charles Durning) asks him to sing You Are My Sunshine and the next thing you know he's on stage performing with a Honky Tonk Band. Still not jazz. Of course, Bubba miraculously tracks him down–without the help of Twitter. He tells Jess that Molly had his kid and named him after Charlie Parker. Jess then goes back to LA to see Molly and meet his bastard son. Wonder if the kid is circumcised? Hello Again soars.
Molly gladly welcomes him back. Turns out while he was traveling the biways of America - his album went gold! Luckily Zany Gray's having another TV special likethat very day. Here's his second big chance. Only Papa has high blood pressure and can't sing at the temple...on Yom Kippur!!! So he sends a Jew-a-gram all the way from NY to L.A. to convince Jess to sing at the temple, therefore missing another opportunity to perform his music on TV. Can't a guy get a break???
So, he decides to honor his father and returns to New York - then after 20 minutes of Hebrew songs-he tells Papa that they have to talk. I begin to wonder where Rivka is. So, on the day of atonement, all is forgiven and Jess performs America to standing ovation - including Papa and Molly. The End. I just wanna know two things: where's the promised jazz and...where the hell is Rivka?