Forty years ago this week, the soundtrack to Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer arrived in record stores. The album was an enormous success due to hit singles “Love on the Rocks,” “Hello Again,” and “America,” even if the movie itself — which starred Diamond as a cantor who rebels against his strict, religious father by making pop music — was far less successful.
Diamond’s dreams of movie stardom go all the way back to the early Seventies when he unsuccessfully auditioned to play Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s Lenny, a part that ultimately went to Dustin Hoffman. The mental anguish of the experience inspired Diamond to write his maudlin masterpiece “I Am, I Said.”
He got another chance a few years later when movie producer Jerry Leider saw Diamond on a 1976 TV special and felt the singer had enough charisma to star in a movie. The Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson version of A Star Is Born had just been a huge hit, and Leider decided to create another remake of a classic film with a pop singer in the lead role.
Laurence Olivier was cast as Diamond’s father, meaning the singer had to make his film debut alongside one of the most celebrated actors in history. Diamond was under a lot of pressure, and he has claimed he was a nervous wreck throughout the entire production. Making matters worse, the shoot was rocked by major script rewrites and the replacement of original director Sidney J. Furie with Richard Fleischer. Check out this footage of the grand finale where Diamond sings “America” with his father in the audience.
In the end, the film lost money and Diamond won the first-ever Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor in a Motion Picture, beating out heavyweights like Kirk Douglas in Saturn 3, Robert Blake in Coast to Coast, and Anthony Hopkins in A Change of Seasons. But the soundtrack became a sensation and gave Diamond three songs that stayed in his set for the remainder of his career. Discounting quick cameos as himself in movies like Saving Silverman, he never acted again.