Blu-ray Roundup: The Tension between THE JAZZ SINGER as Historical Document and as Entertainment

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Warner Bros’ massive new The Jazz Singer Blu-ray set puts me in a strange situation: I can’t imagine giving a higher recommendation to a film that I dislike so much.  As classics go, The Jazz Singer hasn’t aged well, despite its wholly justified position in cinematic history.  Few films can lay claim to forever changing the global cinematic landscape, and The Jazz Singer is certainly one of them.

Using the Vitaphone sound process, director Alan Crosland and his team were able to synchronize sound and dialogue into the picture’s narrative.  Today, that’s called normal moviemaking – most cameras record sound and picture together as a given – but back in 1927, the process of capturing them separately was a laborious one, and one that made The Jazz Singer seem even more extraordinary to viewers.  When Al Jolson blurts out, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” people cheered the way they did for the opening destroyer battle in Star Wars or the sinking of the titular ship in Titanic; they sensed the medium changing in ways they never thought possible.

Now, sound in movies wasn’t a completely alien concept – as early as 1890, filmmakers had been experimenting with incorporating sound effects into short features – but The Jazz Singer was the first full-length film to go the way of the talkie.  The effect was immediate and enduring: as audiences thrilled to this new format, movie studios began planning the transition to full sound, thus causing the near-extinction of silent cinema.

And for that, I honor The Jazz Singer.  I really do.  I just hope I never have to watch it again.  This isn’t a movie – it’s a demo reel for the Vitaphone process, the This Is Cinerama of the 1920s.  Crosland and screenwriter Alfred A. Cohn thinly sketch a movie around the sound bits.  What story there is concerns Jolson’s Jackie Rabinowitz, a Jewish man torn between his domineering father (Werner Oland) & the rabbinate and his own desire to become a jazz singer.  If this setup seems familiar, it may be because “The Simpsons” so memorably spoofed it in the “Like Father, Like Clown” episode, except “The Simpsons” told the same story with brevity and humor.  You can track Jackie’s emotional journey with a stopwatch: the moment he first disobeys his rabbi father, his escalating fame, his guilt as having abandoned the family calling.  This is potentially affecting stuff – how often do mainstream Hollywood movies revolve around Orthodox Judaism – rendered inert by Crosland’s flat staging and the bland performances (Jolson included).  Plus, there isn’t enough incident to keep things moving; at only ninety-five minutes, The Jazz Singer feels distended, like those involved felt obligated to try and pad out an otherwise nifty (but shallow) technical gimmick.

What’s more, there isn’t even that much traditional sound in the film.  Oh sure, there’s a lot of music – all of the song numbers, including the Kol Nidre, “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “Blue Skies,” and “My Mammy” are in full Vitaphone – but pulling off that trick was relatively easy; Jolson would record the song first and then lip-synch it on camera later.  The majority of the non-singing bits play like traditional silent cinema, with intertitles summarizing the plot and conveying key dialogue exchanges; though there are some live-recorded dialogue exchanges, I’d wager they don’t take up more than five minutes of this ninety-five-minute film, and they are stilted and awkward at best (much to my non-surprise, I learned that all the film’s straight dialogue scenes were mostly improvised).

However, I have to recommend this Blu-ray for the care with which Warner has brought The Jazz Singer into high-definition.  The picture quality alone merits a viewing; newly restored from Warner’s vaults, The Jazz Singer‘s HD image has shockingly good detail and depth of focus.  This thing looks as good as the studio’s great Casablanca disc, and the DTS-HD Master Audio track makes the primitive soundtrack seem far more crisp than it should.

And then there are the special features.  I cannot imagine a more complete package, and what’s great is that the features help contextualize the film from a film history standpoint.  We start off with a chatty commentary from Vitaphone Projects founder Ron Hutchinson and Nighthawks bandleader Vince Giordano, and proceed then to five Jolson-and-Vitaphone-themed short films, all in HD.  For kicks, we also get the Lux Radio audio broadcast of The Jazz Singer, and then we move on to the real meat: the feature-length documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk, which details how movies transitioned to sound.  This is a more absorbing sit than The Jazz Singer, as folks like Rudy Behlmer, Jack Warner Jr., Leonard Maltin, Mickey Rooney, and Ben Burtt discuss the development of the medium.

After that, Warner tosses in more than five hours of rare early sound shorts – there are too many to list here, so click on THIS LINK for a full rundown.  Some of these are pretty dated, but it’s fascinating watching the ways that Hollywood tested this new technology before unleashing it in The Jazz Singer.  The supplements far exceed the quality of The Jazz Singer – they’re required viewing for movie buffs.

I wish that I could have seen The Jazz Singer in 1927; how often can one say they’ve seen the world change?  But change moves on, as does time, and that’s the kicker – what was once amazing is now commonplace.  I – we – will always owe The Jazz Singer a debt of gratitude.  It’s just too bad that being first through the brick wall didn’t also make it the best.

The Jazz Singer streets on January 8th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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