The Jazz Singer (1927) poster

Poster now with 50% less racism!

‘The Jazz Singer’! We’ve done it – we’ve breached the ‘talkies’. Sort of. If there are two things that ‘The Jazz Singer’ is known for, it is the tremendous step forward of recorded sound, and the use of blackface. Thanks Hollywood: is every major breakthrough going to be accompanied by racism? Well, ‘The Jazz Singer’ is actually not what you’d expect at all. It’s not got sound throughout, and the blackface is in a few short scenes for (arguably) an understandable reason, but we’ll get onto all that in a bit.

The film follows the story of a young Jewish boy who is the son of a prominent Cantor. While his father wants him to spend his life singing prayers, but the boy’s true passion is Jazz. After a confrontation, the boy is banished, and runs away to pursue a career in show business. Fast forward ten years, and young Jakie Rabinowitz has changed his name to Jack Robin, and is preparing to perform in his Broadway debut, but trouble on the home front draws him into a confrontation with both his father, and his own racial identity.

That’s where the blackface comes into the picture. ‘The Birth of a Nation’ this is not, and while a modern audience would be well within their right to call the film out on the gratuitous use of blackface, it, understandably, wasn’t criticised at the time. The blackface is used to show Jack forsaking his own Jewish heritage and becoming part of the larger American culture, as well as becoming unrecognisable to his own family and friends. Sure, this wouldn’t fly today, and it isn’t the sort of thing to be encouraged, but the film uses it to not pass judgement or criticise any race in particular, but as a noticeable message communicating a theme to its audience.

On a less controversial note, let’s get onto that recorded sound. As I mentioned, it doesn’t run throughout the entire song, and there are still long moments of silent cinema with title-cards galore, but each of the nine songs in the film show the actors singing and have well synced sound running in time with them. On a few small occasions, the actors finish a song and continue to speak with sound, which does feel revolutionary and fresh, especially after watching so many purely silent films recently. On the whole, the sound – even just the ambient sound of applause or someone banging on a table – is exciting and makes you appreciate how far film has come over the last century.

The acting is all phenomenal, with Al Jolson making a truly strong and commendable performance, along with May McAvoy, appearing both powerfully confident and innocently young. Directed by Alan Crosland, the film is an adaptation of the 1922 stage play ‘The Day of Atonement’ by American short-story writer, playwright, and later screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson. All comes together to make a truly powerful piece of cinema which captures you imagination in startling ways, and tells a terrific story.

At the end of the day, ‘The Jazz Singer’ holds up for the most part. While the blackface will (and rightly should) turn off many modern day viewers, the story is powerful and moving, as it struggles to honestly tell the tale of a man finding his place in the world, casting aside his family and his heritage, and discovering a new life in a new time. And for the film to take the first tentative steps away from silent cinema, it tells a parallel story of film itself growing and changing, and adapting to the changing times.

4/5 – Love It
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