Comparison of The Jazz Singer, 1927 and 1980
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I'm not going to go into acting styles or cinematography here. I will be primarily discussing the plot of both movies, how they relate to each other, at what times they sync, and at what points they diverge.

Quick overview: In 1927, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was released. It was a landmark film, the first to use spoken dialogue synched with the film. It has been known as the first "talkie", although the majority of the film utilized subtitles, and was primarily a "silent" movie. At this time, primarily film students and Al Jolson fans are the main audience for this.

In 1980, the 2nd remake of the movie was released, starring Neil Diamond in the lead, and co-starring screen legend Laurence Olivier. The movie had generally received bad reviews, although the soundtrack sold 5 million copies and spawned 3 hit singles. At this time, Neil Diamond fans are the main audience for this. It is not considered one of Olivier's better films.
The main character is Jack (Jakie) Rabinovitz. His mother is still alive, and she supports Jakie's decision to sing the music of his heart (jazz) no matter what his Papa says. Papa is a Cantor in a synagogue, and expects his young son Jakie to follow in his footsteps. The main character is Jess (Yussel) Rabinovitz. Jess is an assistant cantor in a synagogue because that's what Papa wants him to do. In reality, he'd rather be a pop singer. He has NO family support at all for his dream. His wife Rivka has little in common with him and thinks he's wasting his talent on crappy pop music.
First scene has Papa looking for Jakie so they can go to the synagogue and sing hymns. Jakie is nowhere to be found, because he's singing "raggy-time" jazz in a club. A family friend Yudelson happens upon him and goes to the Cantor's house to tell him. The Cantor drags Jakie out of the club, yells at him and beats him with a belt. Jakie decides to leave home. (This makes perfect sense).  The corresponding scene in JS1980 is the dreaded and totally superfluous "blackface" scene. Jess gets pushed into wearing blackface makeup to a club by his friends. (This scene is just awful). After the performance, there's a fight, and Jess and his friends are arrested. Papa bails them out, and finds out what Jess really does in his spare time. Papa lectures Jess and browbeats him into toeing the line. No more singing pop music in clubs. Jess acquiesces to keep Papa happy.
Comments: In JS1927, The Cantor's desire to control his son and make a cantor out of him is logical. Jakie is a KID! Jakie's youthful rebellion, and his running away from the stifling environment of home is quite understandable. In JS1980, the Cantor is still trying to tell his son what to do with his life, but this time, the son isn't a kid, he's a full-grown thirty-something man (Neil Diamond). I never could understand this- Jess is big enough and old enough to make his own decisions and run his own life!
(No equivalent scene. Jack doesn't have family ties to chain him down. He had left home 10 years prior) Jess gets an invitation to spend 2 weeks in L.A. which could lead to his first big break. It's an all-expenses paid trip, so Jess asks Rivka to go with him. She balks and WHINES. And pleads with Jess not to go. Now, WHAT IS WRONG with her? She could be having this cool free vacation with hubby, but she won't. Would I go if I were in her shoes? HELL YEAH!
Jakie grows up changes his name to Jack Robin, and has been making a name for himself as a jazz singer in supper clubs in places like San Francisco. But he has not yet made big-time. He meets a dancer, Mary Dale, and it looks like they start falling in love, but she has to leave for another opportunity on Broadway. She promises to help him with his career whenever she's able to.  Jess decides on using a stage name, "Jess Robin". He goes to L.A. alone, and meets Molly, who becomes his manager. Molly gets him a spot on the Zane Gray show, and he goes over big with the audience. 
(No equivalent. The 1927 Jazz Singer movie is far less soap-opera-ish) Rivka finally decides to go to L.A. to check out how Jess is doing. She meets him backstage and Jess tells her that he's on the verge of big time and asks her to stay with him in L.A. and they can start a new life together. So what does she do? She WHINES some more. And tries to get Jess to give up his dream and go back to N.Y. so he can be under Papa's thumb again. What a loser! Jess says he's staying in L.A. Rivka walks out. That leaves Jess with Molly. Eventually, they fall in love, and Jess moves in with her (apparently without telling Papa).
Comments: It's about here where JS1980 starts becoming increasingly implausible! You really start to wonder if the characters are idiotic or insane or something. But, it gets worse as we go along...
Jack finds himself auditioning for a role on Broadway, so he uses the opportunity to visit his parents. Mama welcomes him warmly, Papa tosses him out of the house because he hates Jack's new job as a jazz singer and thinks it's sacrilege. Jack shows some backbone here and tells Papa to his face, "I'll live my life the way I choose! Someday you will understand, like Mama does". Anyone else feel like jumping out of their chair, pumping a fist in the air and saying, "GO, JACK!!!"?  In JS1980, Papa visits unexpectedly and finds out that Jess is shacking-up with Molly (I guess Rivka didn't tell Papa anything. Even though Rivka lives in Papa's house. Hmmm. How bright!). Papa tears his clothes and disowns Jess. "I hef no son!" he cries. 


Comments: Notice the timing of these scenes. Jack's return home makes perfect sense. It's been 10 years, and he would be ecstatic to see Mama again, and would think that Papa might now be willing to accept his being a jazz singer. In JS1980, only 3 months had elapsed since Jess had left for L.A. The scenes appear to be conveniently set-up so Jess and Papa could confront each other. The way that Jack and Jess handle their rejection by their respective fathers is interesting. Different as night and day.
Jack works on his budding career. He meets up again with Mary Dale while rehearsing for a big show called "April Follies". Jack is doing fine although it never does quite seem that he and Mary Dale are truly in love and would consider marrying. He prepares for his biggest night on Broadway. He puts on his blackface makeup for an important dress rehearsal.  (no equivalent. )
(no equivalent. Jack has much better sense than Jess) Jess starts showing a temperamental streak and blows up, walks out on the band and Molly. Jess hitches rides across the country, lives a hobo life and ends up singing country music in bars for a year. Does this make ANY sense at all? Is Jess supposed to be happier being a pauper and singing someone else's songs for loose change? Wasn't it his dream to make it big by doing his own songs? Eventually, his friend Bubba tracks him down and informs him that he's a daddy. Jess quickly drops the Hee-Haw routine and flies back to see Molly and the baby.
(General comparison between Jack and Jesse's personalities

Jack is perfectly willing to accept Papa disowning him, because he knows what he wants in life, and continues working towards achieving it. What a guy! Jack would wait until Papa comes around, for Papa to be willing to accept him (Jack) on his own terms. Jack wouldn't lose any sleep over not being what Papa wants him to be- Jack is a man with a mission. 

Jess, on the other hand, wimps out. His dream was already in his grasp, and he'd already found the woman he loves and she also shares his dream. But, when Papa disapproves (as if Jess didn't know THAT was coming), he walks out on everything and wastes a year doing nothing to a) reconcile with his father or b) achieve his life's goal. Score: Jack 1 Jess 0. 

(no equivalent) Jess marries Molly, and gets his career jump-started again. The Zane Gray show is taping in N.Y. so Jess goes along. 
Mama and family friend Yudelson see Jack to bring some bad news. Jack finds out that Papa is very sick. He is faced with a wrenching decision. It is his father's dying wish to hear him (Jack) sing "Kol Nidre". Does Jack give up the biggest show of his life to sing in the synagogue just this once for his father? 


Family friend Leo tells him that Papa is very sick and suggests that Jess should sing "Kol Nidre" on Yom Kippur to mend his relationship with Papa. 

Jess initially refuses to do it.. His issue is one of pride, and his unwillingness to appear to be crawling back to his father for forgiveness. 

Eventually, he decides. Jack's a no-show on Broadway, and he sings in the synagogue, throwing everything he has into "Kol Nidre". Papa hears it, and forgives him, and dies with a smile on his face. Even his manager and girlfriend(?)-in-the-making Mary Dale are deeply touched.  There seems to be a scene missing here. We never see Jess do any soul-searching that explains his abrupt decision to walk into the synagogue and sing, after all. There was no real sacrifice in going. In JS1980, it's not as if he had to choose between his career and that one important "Kol Nidre". After the services, he tries to speak with Papa. Papa initially refuses to acknowledge him, but when Jess shows him a picture of his grandson, Papa forgives him. 
Comments: Hmmm. Notice how differently Papa reacts in the 2 films. In JS1927, all it took was Jack's singing to get Papa to forgive him. In JS1980, Papa is still a stubborn old coot, and even Jess' appearance in shul is not enough to get him to mend the fence. Only then did Jess start showing a backbone- he finally indicates that he was ready to go on with life without Papa's blessing, if need be. In this battle of wills, Papa finally backs down (realizing that family is more important than tradition(?)) and embraces his son.
Later, Jack does perform on Broadway, and becomes a huge hit (in blackface singing "Mammy") despite his earlier missed appearance (which undoubtedly pissed-off some very important people in the showbiz world). His mother and Yudelson beam as they watch Jack onstage. Afterwards, Jess performs his signature song, "America" (a tribute to his Jewish immigrant roots) with his now-beaming Papa in the audience.

This article is Copyright 1999, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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