Any list of the most influential movies ever made is incomplete if it doesn't include the Jazz Singer. Period, end of argument. It was the first movie ever made with synchronized sound, and as such, it is the bridge between cinema's earliest silent movies and the "talkies" we know and love today. You cannot claim to understand cinema's history if you don't understand the role the Jazz Singer played in shaping the way movies were made.
That said, it is fair to ask if it belongs on a list of the best movies ever made. Sometimes it makes the cut: for example, in 1998 the American Film Institute voted it as the 90th greatest movie of all time. Sometimes it doesn't make the cut; it wasn't included on the updated list that the AFI released in 2007. Which version of the list is correct? We can all agree that the Jazz Singer has a lot of historical merit, but does it achieve all time classic status on its own terms? Does it deserve a spot next to, say, Citizen Kane or any of the other innovative old school films that earned their spots the hard way?
Sadly, no. Many of the scenes where our young show-biz bound hero argues with his religious father about the merits of secular culture are overwrought; all of its musical numbers have aged badly, as the sort of treacly ballad that the Jazz Singer favors hasn't been popular in several generations; and while it is more watchable than a lot of other films from that era, it pales in comparison to, say, Charlie Chaplin's best work, which still feels vibrant in a way that this does not.
In other words, you can safely categorize it as a "cultural vegetable": it isn't exactly inedible and it is probably good for you but it is on the whole more chore-like than it is joyful. But even if the Jazz Singer is slightly sizzle deficient it still has its moments. In particular, I would like to highlight three ways in which this movie managed to surprise me:
1. I wasn't prepared for how Jewy this movie is. Obviously there has always been a strong Jewish contingent in Hollywood, but a lot of the early studio heads buried their ethnic heritage as much as they could because they were all too aware of America's antisemitic inclinations. Films with Christian themes like D.W. Griffith's Intolerance got huge budgets and wide releases while films with Jewish themes were few and far between. But the Jazz Singer wears its Jewishness openly and proudly.
How openly? Well, consider the plot: first generation American Jakie Rabinowitz wants to sing secular music, but his immigrant father wants him to become a cantor and sing at synagogue instead. When Jakie refuses to obey his father's wishes, the elder Rabinowitz kicks his thirteen year old son out of the house. After years of hustling around the globe Jakie eventually makes it to Broadway... only to have his father fall gravely ill on opening night, thus forcing him to choose between doing right by his family and fulfilling his showbiz dreams, between the old world traditions of his ancestors and the new traditions of his adopted family.
At first Jakie picks the show, but then his desperate mother reminds him that it is Yom Kippur and his father's flock needs someone to sing Kol Nidre for them. Jakie runs to his father's bedside, sees that the old man truly is on death's door, and then he runs down to the temple. The father wakes up long enough to hear his son singing a holy song and then the judgmental crank dies happily. A film that climaxes with a Jewish religious ritual would be rare now, but in 1927 it must have been unheard of.
Seriously: this film is so Jewy that at one point papa Rabinowitz accuses Jakie's girlfriend of being a shiksa. That's as close to peak Jewishness as we're going to get until Woody Allen uses the ark of the covenant's lightning to toast a bagel.
2. I knew there was going to be blackface in this movie, but I was surprised by how little blackface there is. The first instance doesn't happen until we're over an hour in - and that's crazy, because the movie is only 90 minutes. Oh, sure, that last twenty minutes is unabashedly insensitive, but still, that puts it leagues ahead of your average showbiz flick from this era.
But the less said about blackface the better. Moving on...
3. Most notably, I was surprised to discover that the Jazz Singer is more of an odd hybrid of silent movie and talkie than it is a straight up talkie. There are some scenes where characters verbally converse with each other but most of the dialogue is still expressed using title cards. That takes a while to get used to, but eventually it becomes kind of charming because it helps to establish the film's pioneer bonafides.
Most innovative films get copied so much that it can be hard for modern viewers to see why they were so influential - their advances just seem common place to untrained eyes. But that isn't the case with the Jazz Singer because it is so obvious that they are still trying to figure out how to use their newfangled recording technology. The Jazz Singer's odd mixture of talking and typing gives it a sort of neither here-nor-there vibe that students of film history will probably find fascinating, but people that don't enjoy studying missing links might just find it to be awkward.
So, no, the Jazz Singer is not one of the most amazing films I've ever seen. But that doesn't mean that it isn't endearing in it's own off kilter way. Its frank depiction of immigrant life is engaging, and its amphibious vibe is intellectually interesting. It would be a lot easier to recommend this movie if it wasn't a musical that was chock full of awful songs. Note to 1927: talkies are here to stay, but that style of jazz singing? Enh, not so much.