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Neil Diamond Cuts Up

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After his film debut in 1980’s ill-fated “The Jazz Singer,” Neil Diamond decided to concentrate on his music rather than pursue an acting career. Twenty years later he’s back on screen playing himself in the comedy “Saving Silverman,” about a group of twentysomethings (Jack Black, Steve Zahn and Jason Biggs) who have a Neil Diamond cover band. The film opened Friday.

Diamond also wrote an original song for the movie, his first original movie composition since “Jazz Singer.” The boys in the cover band--Diamonds in the Rough--perform a pumped-up version of Diamond’s hit “Holly Holy.”

Earlier this week at his recording studio in West Hollywood, the 61-year-old singer-songwriter took some time out from recording his new album (which will include the “Saving Silverman” single “I Believe in Happy Endings”) to talk about his big-screen return. He had only one caveat before beginning: His mother would probably be reading the interview, he said, and he wanted to distance himself from any complaints she might register in the future.

Question: Did you have a good time playing Neil Diamond?

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Answer: I saw the whole thing as an observer from an acting point of view. It’s much harder to play myself. If I ever do a movie again, it’ll be a singing serial killer.

Q: Like, “Hannibal Lecter: The Musical”?

A: It’s inevitable that they’ll do it on Broadway, and who else can they come to?

Q: You’ve undoubtedly been offered other movie roles. What were they like and why did you turn them all down?

A: Over the years, things have come across the desk, everything from science-fiction to cowboy stuff. But I decided while I was doing “The Jazz Singer” that I’d rather be a really good singer than a mediocre actor, that I’d concentrate on my music, my records and my shows.

Q: So what made you say yes to “Saving Silverman”?

A: This movie was really more about my fans than anything else, about their devotion over the years and how that has transferred to their children as represented by the three main characters. It was the kind of thing I had to do. I couldn’t resist. It’s a tribute to my fans and fans in general. And I decided to take the chance of being embarrassed for a few scenes and be part of the film’s can’t-lose, slam-dunk ending.

And I’m glad I did. “Saving Silverman” was more than a role. It was a chance for my music to be exposed again. That’s something as a writer that is primary to what I do. I might have even done a part in this film, even if I’d only ended up writing the theme song. Nowadays it’s hard for a guy like me to get played on Top 40 radio, so however I can get it out, whether it’s in films, or by tribute bands that travel the country, or even the Internet--whatever. It’s important that it gets out.

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Q: Did you find the film’s sometimes over-the-top humor appealing?

A: I approached the script not wanting to like it, and after the second page I started to laugh. It’s very typical of screwball comedies in the truest sense--a screwy plot, screwy characters. I think they got lucky in their choice of actors, all of whom are still establishing their names. I could, in a sense, come in relaxed and just give the audience a wink. But they had to put out--and they did.

I was amazed at the energy. It rubbed off on me. I remembered way back when, when I was really hungry and had to fight for every bit of attention. It brought me back to that. Instead of me teaching them, they ended up in a sense teaching me. Their hunger was really apparent. They were trying out for the big time.

Q: That was obvious in the concert scene at the end where everyone is scrambling to keep up with you--and you were totally in command.

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A: The music is key. It has the power to transport you. I go from being a slightly insecure, shy kind of a person offstage, to this super-confident, motivated, entity onstage. I don’t know who he is. I just let him kind of happen. But it’s the music that takes me there every time. I’m not that good an actor.

Q: Is that why you prefer live performance to screen acting?

A: Acting is a specific discipline. Just because you can sing doesn’t mean you have the sensitivities of being an actor. I’ve spent my whole life trying to find out who I am, so I could express that through the music. Not who somebody else is, not how somebody else thinks. I couldn’t care less. I’m trying to find the truth in myself. To play somebody else doesn’t interest me. It’s not the focus of my life. I can get through most scenes and do the acting part of it, and at best, I’m going to be mediocre.

Q: The movie plays on your music’s appeal to a new generation of fans. What’s appealing to them in your music?

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A: All my songs are based on melody, which is retrieved from my Jewish heritage. Melody will always exist no matter what the rhythmic changes there are. That means the door is open to people over generations, maybe with changes in the style with which it’s presented. Also, my music is in these young people’s lives because it’s so much a part of their parents’ lives.

Q: How would you judge the cover band in the movie?

A: Musically they’re very good. Jack Black was the premier musician [Black has his own group, Tenacious D], and Steven Zahn is also pretty good. Jason Biggs tagged along for the ride and just had fun. I think they did a good job. The main thing is the enthusiasm. And that’s the key. If you start doing “Cherry, Cherry” from an intellectual point of view, you’ve missed the whole point of it.

Q: Did you go to the studio to help them?

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A: I made myself available to them, but the fact is they didn’t need me. They actually played it a lot better than I did. After a couple of hours of trying to be a father figure, I made a polite retreat to a coffee shop and back home.

Q: Did the filmmakers ask you to write the film’s closing theme?

A: I kind of asked them. When they called me [about the role], I asked if there was a chance I could write something for the end. They said yes. I wrote something, a really good up-tempo thing, and they accepted it right way. And I thought maybe I’ll give them a choice and write a ballad. So I went into the dialogue and came up with “I Believe in Happy Endings” just to give Dennis [Dugan, the director] a choice and he really liked that.

Q: Was it a song you would have written regardless?

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A: It’s part of what I would write, but the movie shaped that idea. It comes directly from my character’s dialogue. When he tries to help them, he realizes that his music has been about happy endings. It was a natural idea to me.

Q: This is the first time you’ve written a song for a movie since . . .

A: Since “The Jazz Singer” and before that, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” An oldie like “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” is in “Pulp Fiction.” And Jane Campion did an extraordinary job with “Holly Holy” in “Holy Smoke.” She opened it up, and it was so trippy and spiritual. The songs have been used, and thank God they have; they get great exposure in these films. I’m open to writing more music for movies. As a songwriter there’s nothing more exciting than the unknown, the new and different.

Q: Your voice remains very resonant after all these years. What’s the secret?

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A: I credit that to luck. I had no vocal training. I don’t pamper my voice. It’s part of my body. If my body is rested and healthy, my voice is rested and healthy. I think giving up cigarettes 10 years ago helped.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever get tired of performing live?

A: You mean the chance to be appreciated by 10,000 people all at once? I’ll never give it up. I’ll do it as long as I’m healthy and able to sing and worth the price of admission. As long as people show up, so will I.


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