A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this 1927 film -- the first "talkie" -- features Al Jolson performing in blackface, a practice that was popular in its day and may need to be explained to younger viewers and put into context. The use of blackface is certainly racist, but in one instance it's handled well, suggesting a connection between African Americans and Jews experiencing similiar identities as outsiders. The movie reveals the domestic discord of Jackie's family life and depicts a cruel father who whips and disowns him.
What's the story?
The descendant of five generations of Jewish cantors, Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson) rejects the family business and chooses to sing in a cabaret instead of a synagogue. While his mother (Eugenie Besserer as a long-suffering Jewish mother stereotype) tries to defend and protect her son, Jakie's strict orthodox father (Warner Oland) avows that "they have no son." Jakie leaves home to begin life as a nightclub performer; with the help of a more established performer, Mary (May McAvoy), he distinguishes himself as a jazz singer and returns to New York as a rising star. When his father falls ill and there's no one to lead the Yom Kippur services on the same night that his show opens, Jakie must choose between showbiz stardom and his religious and familial duties.
Is it any good?
THE JAZZ SINGER is certainly a creaky old celluloid antique by today's cinematic expectations. While it's acknowledged as the first talking picture, there's actually only two minutes' worth of (imperfectly) synchronized talking and a handful of songs, sung by Jolson and others. The bulk of the dialog is conveyed through silent film caption cards. In this much alone, the black-and-white film holds a great deal of value as cinematic history; it virtually reveals the "strings" working the mechanism of movies. It's also a compelling artifact from the dawn of modern America, when immigrants (here, Jews) were balancing assimilation with their traditional heritage. This personal struggle between the old world and the new is further shown in the inception of jazz music itself. Jolson's music -- old timey though it will seem to our kids -- was, in its day, daring, exciting, and even sexy.
Certainly modern audiences will be somewhat preoccupied by the film's overly theatrical performances, which are highly stylized and stereotypical and can be, unintentionally, quite comical. The narrative, likewise, is very simple, and the production is obviously rudimentary and crudely rendered. But those who can look past these limitations will see that the questions of personal identity, ambition, family, and faith are still relevant. Moreover, the music offers an unfiltered look at an early stage in the evolution to rock and roll and beyond.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the practice of blackface in American history and the themes it raises here. Is there a connection between Jackie's Jewish identity, his struggle with assimilation, and the black American experience? Families can also talk about the transition from silent film to the talkies. What new film technologies might we witness in our lifetime?
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