Man, Richard Fleischer. Your career was all over the place. There are highs such as Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, See No Evil and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as well as lows like Amityville 3-D, Doctor Dolittle and Che! as well as movies that can be described as interesting like Mr. Majestyk, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Mandingo and his last film, Million Dollar Mystery, which was a promotional tie-in with Glad-Lock garbage bags that had a million dollar prize for anyone that could guess where the money was.
The idea for this remake of the 1952 movie — which was a remake of the 1927 movie — came from producer Jerry Leider, who believed that star Neil Diamond could be the same kind of star as Elvis. Or at least Barbara Streisand.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer started making this movie but dropped the project when they felt that it was too Jewish, in case you think you know who runs the media. Sometime after, Diamond had back surgery and invoked a clause in his contract that allowed him to finish the original music before filming began, which kept the producers from changing the lead role to Barry Mannilow.
Most importantly at this time, Sir Laurence Olivier was cast as Diamond’s character’s father Cantor Rabinovitch, for a $1 million, ten-week contract. Sidney J. Furie was set to direct — yes, the Iron Eagle director — but he had creative differences and that meant scriptwriting duties shifted from Stephen H. Foreman to Herbert Baker, who rewrote the film and then, well, Furie was fired while the movie was being filmed and Fleisher finished the movie.
Combined with the fact that Neil Diamond could command the stage and reach huge audiences but struggled with acting and you have a movie that was a ticking bomb.
Actually, for everyone who believes that this movie failed, it actually didn’t. It made over $27 million on a budget of $13 million, mostly thanks to being presold to television. The soundtrack, however, was beyond a massive big deal, becoming Neil Diamond’s biggest selling album in the United States by selling more than 5 million copies and reaching #3 on the pop albums chart. The singles “Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again” and “America” reached #2, #6 and #8 on the charts.
This is not the first time a Neil Diamond soundtrack was a hit and the film failed. The other would be Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
But what of the movie?
Yussel Rabinovitch is a young — Diamond was 39 when this came out — fifth-generation Jewish cantor performing at the synagogue of his father. His life is a mix of trying to sing rock and roll and being tied to the teaching of his faith, as well as his marriage to his childhood friend Rivka (Catlin Adams, who took Nathan Johnson’s innocence in The Jerk). Don’t get attached to her, because once Yussel heads to Hollywood, she’s old news.
Somehow, maybe to tie this into the Al Jolson story that the original was all about, Diamond performs with his friend Bubba (Franklyn Ajaye) and his band the Four Brothers, showing up in blackface which trust me was still wrong in 1980. Someone notices that he has white hands, a brawl happens and Yussel’s father has to bail him out and learns that he’s changed his name to Jess Robin. Father and son have a screaming match and trust me, you would be shocked that this is Sir Laurence Olivier, who should be elevating Diamond and instead is trapped within the black hole that is Neil’s acting.
After the movie was finished, Sir Laurence Olivier was overheard at a dinner telling his friends, when asked about this movie, “This piss is shit.” A reporter was nearby and the news was all over the place, leading to the actor writing a ten-page letter to Fleischer, not only apologizing but also admitting that he was in movies — and so many of them — for the money now. The lawsuits that were being written up were torn up.
Despite disagreements with the singer he’s been hired to write songs for, Yussel wins over his future manager — and wife — Molly Bell (Lucia Arnez, literally the one bright shining light in this entire movie).
Man, this entire movie. I’ve always read how bad it is and I was not prepared for how truly awful it is, which means that I loved every single moment of it. Beyond the shouting matches over Jewish tradition, there’s also the fact that our hero is basically a jerk and that he takes it out on everyone around him but we’re supposed to love him not because of who he is in the movie but more because he’s Neil Diamond.
Roger Ebert summed up why this movie makes no sense so well: “The 1925 play spoke to the generation of immigrant children who wanted to break away from the tradition of their parents. But 55 years later, when America’s ethnic groups are rediscovering their traditions, we don’t accept Jess’ career move as easily. Frankly, we see his religious tradition as having much more value than the plastic Hollywood pop music world he yearns to inhabit.”
Diamond was nominated for both a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor and a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for this movie. There’s only two other people who’ve done that. That would be James Coco and Pia Zadroa, who won both awards too.
You know how ridiculous it is when Neil breaks into the Pledge of Allegiance during “America,” but you’re like, man that song is so goofy that you have to love it? That’s this whole movie.