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The Jazz Singer (1927)


Young man’s parents want him to be a temple cantor, but he wants to be a jazz singer. The story of life, ain’t it?

Al Jolson’s classic The Jazz Singer may have a decidedly provencial story, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective, even classic. Jakie Rabinowitz (Jolson) defies his father (a cantor, like four generations before him) to seek stardom as a singer, thousands of miles away. As Jack Robin, he falls in love with Mary (Mary McAvoy), he becomes famous, and he thinks of home. Eventually he’ll return to the family… but will things be the same? It was exceptionally daring subject matter for its era, and still enthralling today.

Much has been written about The Jazz Singer being racist, as Jolson appears in blackface at the end of the movie as part of a minstrel show, popular at the time. While many such shows portrayed blacks negatively, Jolson’s scenes are free of social commentary. The only thing noteable about these moments are his makeup, and you’d be hard-pressed to find overtones of racism here beyond what the abstract setting brings to the table. Don’t dismiss the film for it. (In fact, these scenes are part of the American entertainment consciousness: If you’ve ever wondered why that guy in the Looney Tunes cartoons wears blackface and sings ‘Mammy… mammy…‘ it’s because of The Jazz Singer.)

There’s also the not-so-little issue that makes The Jazz Singer such a critical film. It was the first movie to feature synchronized sound (and not for the whole film — only while Al is singing), This alone makes it a must-see for any film buff, and it’s still exciting so see the title cards drop away when Al starts singing his first diddy… finishing it up with ‘You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!’ Indeed we hadn’t.

Film lovers won’t want to miss the box set release celebrating the movie’s 80th anniversary. The print is nicely cleaned up (though it isn’t perfect, alas), and it includes three discs of extras, including countless hours of old early sound era shorts, a documentary about the dawn of the talkie, sound excerpts from the period (some including Jolson), and more. A historical commentary track is also available on the feature itself.

Mammy! Mammy!