Starring one of the world’s greatest songwriters in his movie debut, the 1980 remake of Al Jolson’s controversial classic was eagerly awaited.
But a troubled production and reluctant leading man turned it into a famous failure – albeit with an iconic soundtrack.
So what happened?
Time for a reboot
It came into being on the whim of an old man. In the mid-70s, Lord Bernie Delfont, brother of film mogul Lew Grade and chief of EMI, brought producer Barry Spikings into his office and told him what he wanted him to do.
“Bernie was from Russia and he and Lew came over to Britain when they were very young,” Lancashire-born Spikings tells Yahoo Movies from Los Angeles. “They wanted to do a remake of The Jazz Singer because it meant so much to them as immigrants.” Spikings (who won 1978’s Best Picture Oscar for The Deer Hunter) wasn’t convinced the second remake of a beloved – and divisive, thanks to the infamous blackface sequence – 1927 film was something he wanted on his slate. But he owed Delfont a great deal and started putting feelers out.
Across the pond, producer Jerry Leider had met up with William Morris agent Tony Fantozzi for lunch. Fantozzi had recently taken over as Diamond’s agent and the pair had become close. Diamond had never acted before, though had auditioned unsuccessfully for Lenny, a 1974 biopic of comedian Lenny Bruce and had been considered for 1978’s Superman. Waxing lyrical about the singer’s abilities, Fantozzi compared him to Al Jolson. “‘I said, “Jolson?’,” recalled Leider. “’Maybe we should get the rights to do The Jazz Singer?’ Tony said, ‘Boy, would Neil like that.’”
He did – and it then took Leider six months to get the movie rights. He hired screenwriter Jerome Kass, who started hanging around with Diamond, finding what he saw as a vulnerable and emotionally unavailable man. “I had the feeling that everywhere we went he was uncomfortable,” said Kass.
He wrote a script and read it aloud with Diamond in his office who loved it, but MGM were not impressed. When Diamond didn’t stand up for the movie, the writer resigned. Despite a second draft by playwright Stephen H. Foreman, by the summer of 1978 MGM put the project into turnaround, at which point Leider hit the phones and found himself talking to EMI.
Diamond had got involved in other work in the interim and Leider had even considered offering the part to Barry Manilow. But after hearing about EMI’s interest, Diamond came to London.
Putting it together
“I got a call from Tony Fantozzi,” laughs Spikings. “He said, ‘Neil wants to do it.’ And I said, ‘Neil who?’ Despite knowing and liking Diamond’s work, Spikings continued to prevaricate because he knew the singer had never acted. “I was pacing up and down in my office, looking out the window trying to get my thoughts together and I saw Tony Fantozzi and Neil Diamond in the park, obviously rehearsing,” he recalls.
“I knew Tony was coming, but I didn’t know Neil was coming. Up they came and we had a long talk. I was really interested by Neil’s commitment. He handled himself very well. I also thought, if we can get the record, we’ll do really well!”
Today, Spikings regrets some of those initial deliberations. “I’d been incredibly careless in constructing the music deal, because the benefits went to Capitol Records and EMI Records and my [film] division didn’t benefit from the music at all,” he says. “So I think we lost a bob or two.”
Nevertheless, he was impressed with Diamond. “He was very low-key. He was really persuasive. There was none of the ‘I’m a music star’ stuff,” he says.
With Diamond signed not just to star in the film but also to write the music, Spikings set about putting the rest of the package together. The plot follows a cantor’s son called Yussel Rabinovitch, who’s settled down with his childhood sweetheart Rivka and is destined for a life in the synagogue. But he dreams of pop stardom, abandoning his life to move to LA where he falls in love with producer Molly and becomes a star.
Conflicted by his past, he must strive to reconcile his old and new identities. Actress Catlin Adams was hired as Rivka, while Deborah Raffin was brought on as the producer. Sir Laurence Olivier agreed to play Diamond’s devout father (for a hefty fee). Meanwhile, Spikings signed up director Sidney J. Furie, who’d recently completed the Billie Holiday musical Lady Sings The Blues.
Problems on the set
And that’s when everything started to go wrong. Part of the problem was Furie’s insistence that they shoot every scene with multiple cameras. The director’s rationale was by working with a neophyte actor, he needed to ensure any decent take was captured on film.
“They wanted coverage of it so they wouldn’t have to do it again,” says Adams. There was also Furie’s total deference to his star.
“Sidney just lost the plot,” says Spikings bluntly. “He was so overwhelmed by working with Neil. And Neil would go back into his trailer on the streets of New York and come back waving a piece of paper which was a suggestion for a new line or a new scene and Sidney would say, ‘Genius, genius!’ Maybe some of those ideas should have been thought through a bit more.”
Although she didn’t know who Neil Diamond was before starting work on the film, Adams – who came from a theatre background – hoped that she would bond with him. But Diamond was impenetrable.
“He was locked up on a personal level, on an emotional level. You could not talk to this guy,” she says. Barry Spikings has a slightly different explanation.
“Neil had walking pneumonia,” he remembers. “He became quite ill. And so he was lacking in energy. But he kept going. We didn’t make a fuss about it because insurance companies might have had something to say about it.”
The director’s gotta go
Word started seeping from the set that the movie was in trouble. Something had to give. “We were going way over-budget and I had to fire Sidney,” says Spikings. Production was shut down for a month and Spikings turned to seasoned pro Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green) to take over. Deborah Raffin was also let go and replaced by Lucie Arnaz.
When Richard Fleischer arrived, he found a mess. “The picture was a basket case,” he said in his autobiography. “Not having the confidence of an Olivier, [Diamond had] withdrawn into a shell and tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.” Adams agrees she found it difficult to act opposite him. “As an acting coach, I’ve worked with singers who then go and act in a film,” she says. “Neil was on his own and he wasn’t accessible as a human being. He wasn’t friendly, he was removed.”
Gradually, Fleischer managed to coax a performance out of his leading man. One scene required him to burst into a recording booth and scream at his co-stars. Diamond was struggling.
But then: “Neil blasted into the control booth in a blind rage,” recalled Fleischer.
“The dialogue got a little mangled, but it was right for the scene. He was wonderful. A dynamite performance. After I yelled cut, I grabbed Neil and asked him what had happened in the other room that had set him off like that. ‘Well, I was feeling so lousy that I couldn’t give you what you wanted, I asked my band to play something that would make me angry.’ ‘And what did they play?’ ‘A Barry Manilow number.’”
The big final concert was filmed at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles with Fleischer using 13 cameras to shoot three songs in front of a real audience. Assistant directors filled the auditorium with mostly local black and Hispanic teenage extras, for whom Diamond performed a brilliant set which can be seen in the finale of the finished movie – a scene shot like a real live gig.
“I remember the day they did the concert,” says Adams. “I was just so knocked out by that song [America]. He was amazing.”
The project fizzles
Filming wrapped and a 26-minute section of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1980, getting good buzz. But when the movie was released on 19 December, 1980 it received a critical savaging. Both Diamond and Olivier won Razzie Awards for their performances. Apart from a couple of comedy performances as himself, the singer never acted again.
Yet in spite of the reviews, the film’s soundtrack was huge. It went five times platinum, spending more than 110 weeks in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. It spawned some of Diamond’s best-known songs, including America, Love On The Rocks and Hello Again.
“The record saved Capitol Records that year,” says Barry Spikings, 40 years later.
“It wasn’t a good movie, but it did okay. The soundtrack made a fortune. Everyone ended up reasonably happy.” In fact, despite being labelled as a flop, it out-grossed a number of classic movies that were released that year, including The Elephant Man and Raging Bull. “I think Neil was pleased with the movie,” he adds. “And he was pleased with the album. I think it did him good rather than not.”
Catlin Adams has mellowed about the film over the intervening years, though she has still never seen it.
“The soundtrack is spectacular,’ she says. “That’s what people remember.” Still, she admits, “I never had a conversation with the man. I could tell you nothing about him. He is as mysterious to me now as he was then.”
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