Neil Diamond stars in this motion picture as Yussel Rabinovitch, a young Jewish cantor who strives to make a career outside the synagogue in popular music as Jess Robin. Against the wishes of his rigid father and his loving wife, Yussel travels from New York City to Los Angeles to play his music. Swept up by the excitement, he meets a spunky manager who believes in his talent and shares his dream. He grows apart from his family, and becomes confused about what he should ultimately do with his life.
A great score applied to a great story
I try to go into a movie uncolored with opinions, and thankfully hadn’t heard any negative reviews on this one prior to seeing it for the first time in 1980. That allowed me to view it with an open mind.
The score is superb. It’s what makes the movie what it is. The songs fit the mood in every scene, and are all well-placed. The acting, while not the best I’ve ever seen, isn’t nearly as bad as made out to be by critics. Let’s face it. Neil Diamond is not an actor. He is a singer, a performer. In this movie he does that very well. And yet, he manages to pull off his character, Yussel Rabinovich, without a hitch. His scenes with Sir Lawrence Olivier are touching and believable. They are indeed a good match as father and son cantors. But for Yussel, his heritage isn’t enough. His music roots drive him, and that’s what he sets out to discover. Against the will of his father, and over the protest of his wife Rivka, he leaves his home in New York for L.A. and seeks his destiny.
Lucie Arnaz turns in a good performance as Molly Bell, a “retired” music promoter who sees potential in Yussel and takes him under her wing. What follows is a tug-of-war, a battle of values—old and new—as Neil’s character, now Jess Robin, climbs the charts professionally, yet never really forgets where he came from.
Watching Neil perform in this movie is like seeing one of his concerts. He’s all-show, and not a bit shy. When he picks up a guitar, you know you’re in for a treat, and he does music as only he can. It’s a great story, well-told and, on the whole, well-acted. Neil gives emotions where called for. But in this movie, the music’s the star. That’s where Neil really delivers.