In which the sound of silence never seemed so loud.
The Jazz Singer is a movie known by many for two things, starring Al Jolson and being the first “talkie”. They are without a doubt the two most interesting things about the film. The picture itself is a remarkably dull, melodramatic and blackface-heavy slog to sit through.
Hailed as the arrival of sound and the end of the silents, The Jazz Singer was the first full-length film to use synchronised sound and picture. It combines both singing, speech and dialogue between characters and was truly revolutionary in its time. Although the speech only adds up to a few minutes, having been immersed in silent films this year it does come as a jolt to hear it break the silence.
Unfortunately, other than Jolson’s memorable line “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, the film has very little to say. It follows the story of a young Jewish man who turns his back on the family tradition of being a Cantor (someone who leads worship, including through song) for a career in showbusiness. Though his mother is supportive, his stubborn father rejects his son and will have nothing to do with him.
After Jolson becomes a success and earns a shot at Broadway, the family is forced to face the same argument once again. Jolson’s father is in bad health and wants his son to take his place as Cantor, on the opening night of the show.
The conflict is paper-thin stuff, manufactured rather than earned and comes to a resolution that avoids taking any sides in the debate. What could have been a drama about the tensions between religion and show business, tradition and the future, old and young, is just a backdrop for an achievement in film technology. Without the use of sound, The Jazz Singer would not be known today.
Finding ourselves rather bored but undoubtedly impressed by the film, we hit a further hurdle. More of an unassailable and towering brick wall than a hurdle, the use of blackface.
In researching the film, I’ve found arguments on either side. Many say it’s a relic of the time, unacceptable today and unforgivably racist. Some say it’s an unusual case where blackface is important to the narrative, as it’s a necessary way for Jolson to escape his traditional Jewish identity and upbringing to succeed in showbusiness.
I’m neither Jewish nor black and ill-qualified to instruct anyone what to think on the matter. To me, it’s racist. The Jazz Singer belongs in a museum, not on a streaming service. We should remember it for being the first talkie and a technical achievement, but beyond that it should be consigned to history.
The Jazz Singer may have set a new standard for film’s capabilities, but we can be thankful it left no further mark on cinema.