The Jazz Singer

(Alan Crosland, USA, 1927): The movie sound barrier was definitively shattered about nineteen minutes into The Jazz Singer, at the moment Al Jolson first appears as the grown-up Jakie Rabinowitz. A cantor’s son who ran from home to the floodlights whose name is now Jack Robin, Jakie’s just been asked to perform a song or two at a New York nightclub. This is his moment of reckoning, but it’s also the moment of sound’s big audition as a new way of engaging our undivided attention. We might be suspicious. We’ve already heard the miracle of ‘talking pictures’ emanate from this baldly sentimental showbiz picture, and even if we’re watching in 1927, we may already know that sound has been struggling to find its place in the movies for years now. We might have even seen — and heard — a Vitaphone short or two featuring vaudeville acts plucking ukeleles or tap-dancing across soundstages. But we weren’t likely convinced it was anything but a gimmick before Jack Robin opens his mouth and starts belting out ‘Dirty Hands, Dirty Face’ to a rapt audience. But this is different. This feels like something movies were made to do. A destiny fulfilled.

The Jazz Singer has so often been patronized as hopelessly dated and clumsy it’s easy to overlook just how powerfully and intensely director Alan Crosland conveys the fundamental magnetism of Alan Jolson’s performance style in this sequence, and the impact the choices made in the synching of song, singer and camera placement made on the history of movies from that instant forward. When Jakie steps up on stage and a close-up or two reassures us this is actually Al Jolson, the most popular singer of his day, the camera holds back on his full body. We’re roughly in position of the best seat in the house, but the angle would more correctly have us standing just a few feet directly in front of Jolson, the better to have him perform just for us without anything to distract or impede our appreciation of the man giving his whole being — body and soul as the saying goes — to the song. It’s exactly where you want to be to see and judge if the audition is a winner, and it’s exactly where you’d previously only dreamed of being for a real-live Jolson performance. Al Jolson, already legendary for the no holds barred physicality of his live shows, is about to do it just for you.

The song, an ode to a sloppy tyke sung by a loving parent, may be pure hokum, but hokum was Jolson’s metier, and the sentiment expressed provides the performer with the necessary emotional urgency to put his whole body into the act of selling his feelings: pleading for our empathetic investment of our feelings to match his, Jolson repeatedly extends his arms and clasps his hands in a gesture of gathering his audience into a kind of mass hug, looks upward in supplicant joy and pivots slightly on legs that seem coiled to spring, and uses his hips as the swivelling core of his entire physical channelling of the music. His body is functioning both as a form of spectacle for us watch but a kind of machine to convince us of his sincerity in the song and need for us to believe it and feel it along with him. I mean, this guy really, really wants us to like him, and, if he hasn’t done that yet, he cranks the machinery up right after his signature threat of more pleasure to come: “Folks, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” Then it’s ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’ and the world might as well be his. Darned if a wall or two hasn’t been knocked down in the few minutes it takes Jakie to sing those two numbers, and damned if you can’t see a path leading all the way to Memphis and Elvis Presley through the rubble.

If you didn’t ‘get’ Jolson before seeing that back in ’27, it’s a fair guess you might now, because here was the proof that you had to see it to believe it, and what The Jazz Singer did was provide proof, incontrovertible and irreversible, that the seeing and the hearing was how Jolson needed to be fully appreciated. But if the movies now seemed to strive in a evolutionary technological way to deliver us Al Jolson and a deliver us to Al Jolson, they also seemed to attain another kind of destiny: they were about to shift popular music itself into a visual medium. After this, there would be no hearing without seeing. From this moment forward, your eyes demanded what your ears were hearing.

In the movie’s slam-it-home penultimate performance, Jolson — in the blackface that was not only his signature style but a popular visual code for a particular kind of exceedingly sentimental and racially white and black musical performance style (the glitter of its day), Jolson is seen on a stage that has a runway into the audience: the better to get him in intimate performative proximity to his own mammy when he falls on one knee during ‘Mammy’, but also to bring the singer to the audience so they can see him as well as hear him. This too was a Jolson staple — and later a fixture of stadium rock performance — a means by which the singer’s physical presence could be made more visually accessible to his audience, and the theatrical real-world precursor of what The Jazz Singer provided virtually, in two dimensions but with sound.

For their first few years, the talkies were really jukebox song delivery systems: musicals were churned out at such a heedless rate they exhausted audience demand before the ’30s were spent, but their revival in the ’40s, not to mention the unprecedented multi-media dominion of Bing Crosby and the ritual multi-purposing of popular radio and wax recording stars as movie stars, were indications of the new world made inevitable by The Jazz Singer: pop music was, and remains, a visual medium, and the coming of sound to movies needed something to sing about to stick.  Indeed, pop music would increasingly evolve as a visual medium in the coming decades, until the rise of rock & roll — another music medium that siphoned and melded racial influences — provided the first fully-formed visual pop music form. Whatever one makes of The Jazz Singer in terms of its archaic racial signifiers, shameless sentimentality or songs whose mass popularity suggests life on another planet, the fact is this: we’re now living in the world this movie created.

Note: the 2007 triple-disc DVD edition of The Jazz Singer still stands as one of the most exhaustively essential archives of early sound technology, especially as it evolved for the purpose of recording music as a moving picture medium, available anywhere. Apart from the dozens of Vitaphone shorts featuring mostly forgotten and soon to be obliviated Vaudeville acts doing their thing, the disc also features Jolson’s amazing but hardly uncomplicated all-blackface Vitaphone short ‘A Plantation Act’, where the singer not only showcases the full range of his astounding physicality before a camera a full year prior to The Jazz Singer, he demonstrates just how thoroughly the minstrel tradition provided the most accommodating context for Jolson’s extraordinary slaying power as a sentimental belter. However we may regard the form’s reasonably uncomfortable and antiquated conventions today, the indispensably influential and popular minstrel medium gave Jolson the generic context he needed to become Al Jolson. (Warner Home Video)