Neil Diamond’s impact on Hollywood is mostly tied to soundtracks—he composed the entire score to 1973’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, sales of which outgrossed the actual film; his Billboard hit “Heartlight” was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial; Urge Overkill’s cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” was a scene-stealer and image-booster in Pulp Fiction; and the mind-numbingly catchy sing-along bar tune “Sweet Caroline” has left a lasting mark on films such as Beautiful Girls, Fever Pitch and countless others with even the loosest of Boston Red Sox connections (it’s played during every home game).
But Diamond’s impact on film goes beyond his sweet, unadorned voice and timeless tunes. He also acts. Kind of. So, in honor of “Cherry, Cherry: A Neil Diamond Tribute,” coming to the Wilma Theatre Saturday, Sept. 9, we’ve decided to take a look at the best—actually, the only—of Diamond’s in-person cinematic appearances.
The Last Waltz (1978)
In Martin Scorsese’s classic concert documentary of The Band’s grand farewell, The Jewish Elvis sticks out like a matzah ball in a Tipu’s Tiger lunch buffet. In the grand finale, when everyone comes together to sing “I Shall Be Released,” Diamond plays the role of band geek, overdressed and awkwardly edged out of his center-stage mic space by cool kid crooners Neil Young and Joni Mitchell to a sidestage mic with Dr. John. And yet, earlier, when Diamond took the spotlight wearing a royal-blue leisure suit, cherry-red polyester button-down shirt and classic ’70s shades, he tore down the house with his glitzy glory. According to the ladies, when he sang “Dry Your Eyes” backed by Levon, Robbie and the gang, there wasn’t a dry pair of thighs in the house.
The Jazz Singer (1980)
Diamond’s big break turned out to be an even bigger bust. Given a role he seemed destined for—a singer trapped as a cantor in his father’s synagogue who bolts for fame in L.A.—Diamond and the movie are such an unmitigated train wreck that it can’t be coincidence that Diamond doesn’t make another on-screen appearance for 20 years. A few examples of why this remake of the 1927 classic reeks: Diamond performs one scene in blackface while fronting a soul group; a clumsily tearful reunion with his father, played by an unintelligible Sir Laurence Olivier; and a fireside sex scene with Lucie Arnez, the daughter of Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball. This film may have allowed diehard Diamond fans the chance to see him perform “America” and “Hello Again” on the big screen, but that’s little consolation for its lasting claim to fame: Diamond won the Golden Raspberry Foundation’s first-ever Razzie Award for the year’s worst actor.
Saving Silverman (2001)
The rehabilitation (or is that dehabilitation?) of Diamond reached its apex, for better or worse, when he played himself—aka, a human punchline—in this post-teen dude comedy seemingly created to piggyback on the success of American Pie. As the movie progresses from its setup—a bunch of best friends saving Pie star Jason Biggs from marrying the bitchy yet sexy Amanda Peet—the plotline recedes quicker than Diamond’s hairline. Somewhere in the midst of the occasionally funny mess, as Jack Black comes out of the closet and wannabe nun Amanda Detmer bench-presses boys as a pickup ploy, we learn that the main characters have an unhealthy fascination with the man who wrote “Don’t Think…Feel”: they play in Diamonds in the Rough, a Neil Diamond cover band. So, naturally, when the big happy ending comes fumbling into our laps at the 90-minute mark, Steve Zahn and Black kidnap Diamond to help them save Biggs; Diamond agrees to help so he can finally see his love songs put to good use. In the film’s defense, watching Black lead the cover band and speak in reverential tones of his home’s collection of dubious Diamond memorabilia (“The Hall o’ Neil”) is almost as funny as when we learn that Black’s character has been sending Diamond naked photos of himself. How’s that for a mental image? It almost erases the picture of Lucie Arnez battling through Diamond’s chest hair for a tongue kiss.
Keeping Up with the Steins (2006)
Described as a Jewish My Big Fat Greek Wedding (oye vey), this comedy tracks the son of Jeremy Piven (“Entourage”) and Jami Gertz (’80s-era star from The Lost Boys and Crossroads) as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. Once the family sees what others have done to honor their boys-to-men transitions (including a pretty funny Titanic recreation in a ballroom; “Today I am the king of the Torah!”), the event devolves into a stereotypical contest over which family can flash the most cash. Diamond’s role? It goes without saying, but, once again, he turns up toward the end as a walking punchline, this time singing “Hava Nagila” in Dodger Stadium. (That reads funnier than the actual scene.) After this, I’m betting the Solitary Man will have to wait another 20 years for his next role.