Monday, February 22, 2010

review: the Jazz Singer (1927)

Let me clear this little thing up: There is a little twist when people say this is the first talking picture. It is true, this is the first one to have syncopated dialougue spoken after the musical numbers, but it is hardly a talking picture. More than half of the movie plays out like any other silent film. The other thing to mention is that there had been other films before this - but the big difference between those and this one, is that The Jazz Singer made money and became a hit. There is a big difference in art between being the first, and being the first successfully. This is one of those distinctions.
In this classic play turned to movie, a young boy goes against the wishes of his father, a Jewish Cantor, and runs away to become a jazz singer. The plot is more than that, but that is the basic idea. I don't think people give this movie enough credit for plot. It is a classic example of old vs new, father against son, redemption, forgiveness, and family love.
Jolson plays the grown son - and he is interesting. His music performances and his acting are on two different levels. Which tells you something, I think, about him as a performer on stage - although I will like to pre-mention that both sides are wonderful. As a "straight" actor, I was surprised at home simple his performance is. I expected a lot of play-up and gimicks and heavy handed gestures, much like his singing persona. But he doesn't do that (well, I mean, a lot - he does to a certain extent, but that just has to do with expression in a silent film), instead you see him making subtle choices. I don't know why, but that surprised me. When he sings, it is completely different. From what little I know about Jolson, I gather that he used blackface to put on a mask for his performances. A release, in a way. And you can tell that is true, because something about him changes when he performs - even when he is not in blackface. Considering his career, you can see how the mask exceeded the make-up and became an act. This style, this act, this mask carried him to legendary stardom on Broadway and in show business, and with this film, Hollywood.
The songs are delightful - including Irving Berlin's great 'Blue Skies', the story is fascinating - this movie can not go wrong.
It's wonderful, and everyone should see it at least once in thier life.
4 out of 5 stars

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