Though the film was one of the Top 30 highest grossing films in North America in 1980 (earning $27 million), Lew Grade who invested in the film stated that the box office results were "disappointing" and that his company failed to recoup their advertising and distribution costs. The soundtrack album actually made more money than the film itself.
After the movie was finished, Laurence Olivier went to New York for a short time, and had dinner in a restaurant with friends. During the dinner, he recalled to his friends something he said about the movie while Furie was still directing: "This piss is shit." Olivier later said a reporter must have been at the table next to his, because the next day the New York Daily News reported what he said (though with both vulgar words changed to cleaner derogatory words). This news soon spread completely across the country, and with threats of lawsuits in the air, Olivier quickly made a statement to the press claiming that in the end the movie had been made well and that he totally supported it. Olivier also wrote a handwritten ten-page letter to Richard Fleischer, not only apologizing for the restaurant incident, but also indirectly giving an explanation as to why he was making so many movies strictly for the money.
The scene where Jess performs "You Baby Baby" in the Cinderella Club with an afro and black makeup on was actually done as a minor tribute to Al Jolson, who did the original The Jazz Singer (1927) in blackface.
In Terry Coleman's biography of Laurence Olivier, he states Olivier received $1 million dollars to star in the film. After signing on, Olivier regretted the decision, although by April 1980, three months into filming, he was receiving extra pay for each day of shooting in addition to $2,500 a week for expenses. During this time, Olivier also directed a play on the east coast and filmed additional scenes for his miniseries Brideshead Revisited (1981).
Sound Mixer Tom Overton said of the film's sound recording and four 24-track music recording machines: "People are too sophisticated today to sit through a movie filmed to playback music. They want to hear what they see and that's the way we're doing it. Neil Diamond's songs and score sound just great. We're a hell of a way from those dear old Vitaphone days to which we all owe so much.".
Neil Diamond once said of this movie whilst doing publicity for the film: "It was a unique experience to come up with songs that would comment on the film's storyline, yet not intrude on it. People constantly ask me why, with all my success, I find moviemaking so special. I believe that film is perhaps the greatest form of mass communication as well as an art form, fulfilling all the elements of people's fantasies, Besides, its a natural progression for most in the music business. Bing Crosby did it, [Frank] Sinatra and Elvis [Presley] did it, John Denver, Helen Reddy, Bette Midler, [Barbra] Streisand and Kris Kristofferson have all done it - it's tricky and you have to be lucky, but the success rate is high. By making a movie we allow our music to reach countless millions around the world. It's a challenge combining all our performing elements. Without that challenge, we grow stale.".
Richard Fleischer replaced Sidney J. Furie as director. Furie was originally hired to direct the movie. During the several weeks Furie directed the movie, he was constantly rewriting the screenplay, and Catlin Adams during that time had no idea if her character was married to Neil Diamond's character or not. Other scenes were ad-libbed on the spot without any idea where they would be placed. Furie refused to speak to any representatives from the production company (EMI) expressing concern about what was happening. Eventually, EMI threatened to close down the production if Furie did not sent them a completed screenplay within a week. Upon receiving the screenplay, EMI not only judged it to be bad (among other things, it eliminated the key "Kol Nidre" sequence), but that it would double the budget as well as the time originally scheduled for shooting. Subsequently, Furie was fired, having already shot 48 hours of often unusable footage, and Richard Fleischer was contacted to salvage the project.
Though called "The Jazz Singer", ironically, the film "doesn't feature any jazz", as reported by "Movie '81" magazine [from Australia]. Similarly, trade paper "Variety" stated that the movie's "title has nothing to do with music on display here".
Richard Fleischer reshot a great deal of Laurence Olivier's scenes because he felt Olivier had overacted. When Olivier asked Fleischer why they were doing these scenes again, Fleischer explained the truth in a diplomatic manner: that he did not like how the scenes had been staged originally.
Although Laurence Olivier thought the film was most likely going to be a commercial hit (his original reason for signing onto the project), he advised a friend of his who stated he was looking forward to the film against seeing it.
A scene was shot (but not used) of Jess visiting his father's bedside. A photo of it implies that his father is sick in the photo, though it is not clear whether this scene was meant to take place before or after Jess left for Los Angeles, so may also have been a general scene. The shot of this can be found on the soundtrack LP's inner sleeve montage of photos from the film.
According to the DVD sleeve notes, Producer Jerry Leider "knew he would have to keep the powerful emotions from the original The Jazz Singer (1927)] and at the same time provided audiences with a contemporary story. Many changes were made to the script [i.e. the original story]".
The scenes of Neil Diamond in Laredo, Texas were actually shot on D Street in Victorville, California. The scenes of Neil driving (and breaking down) in his Mustang were shot on Highway 395 outside Victorville.
The dancer character, known as Mary Dale in the The Jazz Singer (1927) original, and which has appeared in various earlier versions of the story, was entirely cut of this picture. An alternate female character, Molly Bell, replaced her role, that being of the Jazz Singer's wife.
Actor Neil Diamond, like actor Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927) original, is seen in "blackface" in this film, but not to the same extent. Considered offensive and racist by modern contemporary standards today [as of June 2013], the existence of "blackface" in one scene in this movie, where Diamond also wears an afro wig, the "blackface" was considered a "homage" by the production to the original's famous "Mammy" sequence. The original 1927 film was made during an era when the "Black-and-white Minstrels" which were, at that time, a popular act at the height of popularity.
The film was made and released about fifty-five years after its source stage play of the same name by Samson Raphaelson had been first performed in 1925. Raphaelson lived until 1983 so this movie version was made and released within his lifetime.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Near the end of the shoot, Neil Diamond was having trouble with the scene where he storms into the recording booth in a rage and has a heated argument with Lucie Arnaz's character. During a break, Richard Fleischer looked into the glass of the recording stage and saw Diamond going berserk, smashing everything in sight. Fleischer quickly shouted action, Diamond burst into the recording booth in an absolute fury, and pulled off the scene. After shouting cut, Fleischer asked him just what happened. Diamond explained that he felt so bad he was not able to pull off the scene, he asked his band to play something that would make him angry - which was a Barry Manilow number.