The Controversial Moment Neil Diamond Probably Wants You To Forget

Even before Neil Diamond hit his first No. 1 single with 1970's "Cracklin' Rosie,"  he's had us crooning his lyrics in the car, at the bar, and during backyard BBQs. Seriously, how many times have you sung the "Sweet Caroline" line, "Hands, touching hands. Reaching out, touching me, touching you." And that's from 1969 — more than 50 years ago. In fact, "Sweet Caroline" made it into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in 2019 because of its "cultural and esthetic significance," reported the Mercury News. Yep. The tune is that catchy. Fun fact: Even before making his own music, Diamond wrote songs for others, according to Biography, including the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" (1966) and "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You" (1967), and later, UB40's big 1983 hit "Red, Red Wine."

This Brooklyn-born music maker had 13 top 10 hits, with three of them going to number one, according to Billboard.  His awards include a 2018 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honors 2011 honoree, and inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. 

The man is a legend. The biggest chink in this hitmaker's armor is the 1980 remake of "The Jazz Singer." Unfortunately, Diamond's big break in the movies underwhelmed both the public and the critics. Rotten Tomatoes ranked it at 19 percent and said his "foray into acting is a total miss in this gaudy and unconvincing remake." But most controversially, he also donned blackface.

The decision was controversial even at the time

The scene (above) — which is supposed to be comedic — sees Neil Diamond's character encouraged to put on blackface by his Black backup band before taking the stage. In an interview with Rich Wiseman for his 1987 book "Neil Diamond: Solitary Star," Stephen Foreman, the remake's original screenwriter, explained his thoughts on director Sidney J. Furie's decision. "I think he thought it was good entertainment," Foreman said. "But I said, 'No way am I gonna write that scene. In the first place, it's racist, in the second place it's b*******.'" Still, Diamond's career didn't take too much of a hit, though he did win a Golden Raspberry for Worst Actor for the role.

Furie's decision was a nod to the original, which stars blackface comedian Al Jolson as a Jewish singer jazz singer who performs in blackface. But even though it was released in 1927, when blackface was more accepted than today, it has received criticism for its use of the practice just like the reboot. "'The Jazz Singer' does no favor to blacks,'" Michael Rogin wrote in a 1992 piece for Critical Inquiry. "The blackface jazz singer is neither a jazz singer nor black." Indeed, Jolson's career and its impact on culture has also faced scrutiny. "That Jolson rose to fame through minstrelsy is both grotesque and telling, a painful context that now (rightfully) overshadows, but hardly erases, his influence," filmmaker and writer Caroline Golum wrote for Hyperallergic.

Neil Diamond: From The Jazz Singer to Now

Blackface aside, the movie had issues. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert wrote: "'The Jazz Singer' has so many things wrong with it that a review threatens to become a list. Let me start with the most obvious: This movie is about a man who is at least 20 years too old for such things to be happening to him. 'The Jazz Singer' looks ridiculous giving us Neil Diamond going through an adolescent crisis." Ouch. Still, some good music came out of it — "Love on the Rocks," "America," and "Hello Again" — and the soundtrack album sold more than 5 million copies. Plus, it can be difficult for musicians to successfully transition to acting. Though he appeared in a few movies afterward, Diamond never really found his footing in the industry.

In 2018, Diamond retired during his 50th anniversary tour after a Parkinson's diagnosis, according to the BBC. "I have been so honored to bring my shows to the public," he said. "My sincerest apologies to everyone who purchased tickets and were planning to come to the upcoming show." Diamond plans to continue doing music, though. In fact, he updated the lyrics to "Sweet Caroline" during his coronavirus quarantine, telling his fans (via YouTube): "I know we're going through a rough time right now, but I love you, and I think maybe if we sing together, well, we'll just feel a little bit better." The new lyrics: "hands washing hands, reaching out, don't touch me. I won't touch you." Another classic.