Cantor Rabinowitz wants his son to carry on the generations-old family tradition and become a cantor at the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto of Manhattan's Lower East Side. But down at the beer garden, thirteen-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz is performing so-called jazz tunes. Moisha Yudelson spots the boy and tells Jakie's father, who drags him home. Jakie clings to his mother, Sara, as his father declares, "I'll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him!" Jakie threatens: "If you whip me again, I'll run away — and never come back!" After the whipping, Jakie kisses his mother goodbye and, true to his word, runs away. At the Yom Kippur service, Rabinowitz mournfully tells a fellow celebrant, "My son was to stand at my side and sing tonight – but now I have no son." As the sacred Kol Nidre is sung, Jakie sneaks back home to retrieve a picture of his loving mother.
About 10 years later, Jakie has changed his name to the more assimilated Jack Robin. Jack is called up from his table at a cabaret to perform on stage.
Jack wows the crowd with his energized rendition. Afterward, he is introduced to the beautiful Mary Dale, a musical theater dancer. "There are lots of jazz singers, but you have a tear in your voice," she says, offering to help with his budding career. With her help, Jack eventually gets his big break: a leading part in the new musical April Follies.
Back at the family home Jack left long ago, the elder Rabinowitz instructs a young student in the traditional cantorial art. Jack appears and tries to explain his point of view, and his love of modern music, but the appalled cantor banishes him: "I never want to see you again — you jazz singer!" As he leaves, Jack makes a prediction: "I came home with a heart full of love, but you don't want to understand. Some day you'll understand, the same as Mama does."
Two weeks after Jack's expulsion from the family home and 24 hours before opening night of April Follies on Broadway, Jack's father falls gravely ill. Jack is asked to choose between the show and duty to his family and faith: in order to sing the Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur in his father's place, he will have to miss the big premiere.
That evening, the eve of Yom Kippur, Yudleson tells the Jewish elders, "For the first time, we have no Cantor on the Day of Atonement." Lying in his bed, weak and gaunt, Cantor Rabinowitz tells Sara that he cannot perform on the most sacred of holy days: "My son came to me in my dreams—he sang Kol Nidre so beautifully. If he would only sing like that tonight—surely he would be forgiven."
As Jack prepares for a dress rehearsal by applying blackface makeup, he and Mary discuss his career aspirations and the family pressures they agree he must resist. Sara and Yudleson come to Jack's dressing room to plea for him to come to his father and sing in his stead. Jack is torn. He delivers his blackface performance ("Mother of Mine, I Still Have You"), and Sara sees her son onstage for the first time. She has a tearful revelation: "Here he belongs. If God wanted him in His house, He would have kept him there. He's not my boy anymore—he belongs to the whole world now."
Afterward, Jack returns to the Rabinowitz home. He kneels at his father's bedside and the two converse fondly: "My son—I love you." Sara suggests that it may help heal his father if Jack takes his place at the Yom Kippur service. Mary arrives with the producer, who warns Jack that he'll never work on Broadway again if he fails to appear on opening night. Jack can't decide. Mary challenges him: "Were you lying when you said your career came before everything?" Jack is unsure if he even can replace his father: "I haven't sung Kol Nidre since I was a little boy." His mother tells him, "Do what is in your heart, Jakie—if you sing and God is not in your voice — your father will know." The producer cajoles Jack: "You're a jazz singer at heart!"
At the theater, the opening night audience is told that there will be no performance. Jack sings the Kol Nidre in his father's place. His father listens from his deathbed to the nearby ceremony and speaks his last, forgiving words: "Mama, we have our son again." The spirit of Jack's father is shown at his side in the synagogue. Mary has come to listen. She sees how Jack has reconciled the division in his soul: "a jazz singer—singing to his God."
"The season passes—and time heals—the show goes on." Jack, as "The Jazz Singer," is now appearing at the Winter Garden theater, apparently as the featured performer opening for a show called Back Room. In the front row of the packed theater, his mother sits alongside Yudleson. Jack, in blackface, performs the song "My Mammy" for her and for the world.
Why It Rocks
- The very first full length talkie ever made.
- Though it's the very first full length talkie, only the musical numbers have dialogue, the rest is a silent film, acting like a bridge between the old and the new.
- Great well written story!
- Despite being told he'd never work in showbusiness again, Jackie is able to live his dream as a famous Jazz singer at the end and still fulfills his father's last request.
- Early sound technology was not perfect yet so most actor's lip synched and it was pretty off with this one.
- The blackface make-up may be offensive to those who don't fully understand history.
As the first full length talkie, the Jazz Singer is not only regarded as one of the best movies ever made, but one of the most important films of all time. It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress in 1996.