Although the film was a critical flop, the soundtrack was enormously successful, eventually reaching multi-platinum status and becoming Diamond's most successful album to date. It resulted in three hit songs, "America", "Love on the Rocks" and "Hello Again".
Yussel Rabinovitch is a young Jewish cantor performing at the synagogue of his imperious father. Yussel is married to his childhood friend, Rivka, and has settled down to a life of religious devotion to the teaching of his faith.
But on the side, he writes songs for a black singing group, and when a member of the quartet takes ill, Yussel covers for him at one of their gigs by wearing blackface. The nightclub engagement is a success, but one of the patrons at the nightclub notices that Yussel hands are white and calls him out. A fight ensues and the band is arrested. Yussel's father comes to the jail to bail them out, but finds out that there is not a Yussel Rabinovitch there but a Jess Robin. Later his father questions him about this, and Yussel tells him it is just a professional stage name he uses when performing. His father reminds him that his singing voice was to be used for God's purposes, not his own.
Yussel/Jess's best friend and member of the "Four Brothers" signing group, Bubba, informs him that the band got a gig in Los Angeles performing back up vocals for Keith Lennox. Shortly after Bubba leaves, Yussel begins composing a song that would eventually become "Love on the Rocks". His wife Rivka notices him writing the song in his free time, and senses that Yussel yearns for a bigger stage for his voice, but her values keep her grounded to the home life they have built together.
Bubba calls Jess from LA and informs him that Keith Lennox really loved "Love on the Rocks" and wants to record it, but they need Jess to come out for two weeks to oversee the recording session. Jess finally sees this as the opportunity he has been waiting for, but his wife and his father are opposed to him going. But later at a bar mitzvah his father relents and tearfully lets him go.
When Jess arrives in LA, he is picked up by music agent Molly Bell. She takes him to the studio where Keith Lennox is recording and Jess is shocked to find out that his ballad is now being recorded as a hard rock song. During a break in recording, Jess asks the Producer and Keith Lennox if he can perform the song as a ballad as intended so Lennox can get an idea of the framing of the song. They allow him to do it, and while recording the song, Molly realizes that Jess's performance is the correct way the song should be done. However, Lennox is not so easily swayed and fires the group.
Later, Molly gets a tip from a friend as to where booking agent Eddie Gibbs was having lunch. She asserts herself in his car and has him listen to Jess's recording of "Love on the Rocks". When Eddie asks her who it is, Molly tells him that it is the new opening act for Zane Gray's new television special. Gibbs is not amused and says he can't book anyone from just a tape recording sight unseen, and promptly throws Molly out of his car. However, she manages to get Eddie to come to a club where Jess has managed to get a gig playing, thanks to Bubba, who was working there as a waiter. Eddie comes in and watches for a moment, and then leaves. Jess thinks he has a blown it, but Molly tells him, "..he hates loud crowds..you he loved..you open for Zane Gray."
Meanwhile, back in New York, Cantor Rabinovich confronts Rivka about Jess going to California, and reminds her that her place is by her husband's side, and if she goes to California, maybe she can bring him home. She relents and does just that.
On Jess's opening night, he begins with a small harmonica intro and is heckled by someone in the crowd, but he endures and performs the song "Summer Love". He finishes his first song and the audience applauds, and Jess decides to perform a song everyone can clap, "Hey Louise". Rivka shows up and meets Molly, and tries to tell her that their Jewish values are so tightly adhered to that Jess cannot possibly stay. Molly tells Rivka that she is not the problem, but the crowd is. Jess ends his set and the audience gives him a standing ovation. He heads backstage and is reunited with Rivka. At the after party in Jess's dressing room, Jess is met by a receptive crowd and is given a recording contract. Rivka realizes she has lost him and runs off before Jess can catch her.
Days later, Jess meets up with Molly by the pier and tells her that he and Rivka have split up, and confesses his love for her. As time passes, the two grow closer to each other while Jess's career continues steadily. His father shows up to visit him and attempts to persuade him to come back home, but Jess refuses, insisting that he's making a name for himself with his music career. Jess reveals that he and Rivka are divorcing, which devastates his father. To make matters worse, Molly suddenly arrives at home. Jess tries to explain the matter to his father, but to no avail, as he angrily disowns his son and leaves in tears.
Still broken by the incident, Jess struggles at his recording sessions, taking out his anger on his bandmates, until he finally storms out and drives away aimlessly. When his car breaks down on the highway, he hitchhikes far away for a few weeks. In the meantime, he takes up singing at a country bar. Eventually, he returns home to Molly when Bubba tracks him down and tells him that she has given birth to a son. Molly once again meets Eddie Gibbs in his car and persuades him to let Jess perform on Zane Gray's television special.
At rehearsal, the day before Yom Kippur, Leo shows up and tells Jess that his father is in the hospital with high blood pressure and won't be able to sing Kol Nidre at the synagogue. Jess is initially reluctant to go back to his father, convinced that he is dead to him, but Molly insists that he go back to him, or else she'll remain guilty about it. Jess ultimately agrees and returns to sing at the synagogue. He tries to make amends with his father, but he refuses to speak to him, until Jess tells him that he now has a grandson, at which point he finally reconciles with Jess.
The film ends with Jess performing "America", with his father and Molly in attendance.Neil Diamond as Yussel Rabinovitch/Jess Robin
Laurence Olivier as Cantor Rabinovitch
Lucie Arnaz as Molly Bell
Catlin Adams as Rivka Rabinovitch
Franklyn Ajaye as Bubba
Paul Nicholas as Keith Lennox
Sully Boyar as Eddie Gibbs
Mike Kellin as Leo
James Booth as Paul Rossini
Lew Grade, who invested in the film, said the box office "results were disappointing and we weren't able to recoup our prints and advertising costs". However, since the movie had been presold to American television for $4 million, the losses were minimized. Also, the soundtrack album was very successful and made more money than the film itself. The film made $27,000,000 on a budget of $14,000,000.
Unlike the original, the film received mostly negative reviews. Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times, awarding it one star out of four, said that the remake "has so many things wrong with it that a review threatens to become a list". Another negative review came from Janet Maslin of The New York Times who stated: "Mr. Diamond, looking glum and seldom making eye contact with anyone, isn't enough of a focus for the outmoded story." Time Out London called the appearance of Neil Diamond "the most cautious soft-rock superstar movie debut you'll ever get to see." The only top critic to give a positive review of the film (according to Rotten Tomatoes) was Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader. He wrote that "Richard Fleischer's direction is appropriately close-in and small, and Diamond himself, while no actor, proves to be a commandingly intense, brooding presence." The film is listed in Golden Raspberry Award founder John J. B. Wilson's book The Official Razzie Movie Guide as one of The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.
Diamond was nominated for both a Golden Globe Award and a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Actor for the same role in this movie, winning the latter. The only other time an actor was nominated for both awards for the same performance was Pia Zadora, who uniquely won both in 1981.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"America" – Nominated