Taxi Driver: The streets of Manhattan have descended into the postlapsarian dystopian nightmare forecast in a thousand bad acid trips from the decade earlier. The technological fix for a society that the post-war progression promised has been swallowed up in nothing more than the sprawl of concrete and the rise of brutalist architecture. With no life ring cast from those in power or prominence, who were more concerned with threats from afar than the onset of internal decay, the denizens of the city sink into the plashy mire of crime and punishment.
Watching it all unfold from the dangerous view of a city cab steering wheel, like some Gonzo incarnation of the documentarian Adam Curtis who has lost all subjectivity and snapped in a fit of despairing rage, is Travis Bickle. And in an alternative timeline, the character tasked with being our conduit through the mire of a dilapidated culture would’ve been played by your friend and mine, the eternally blue-denim-clad troubadour and Auntie titillator, Mr Neil Diamond! It’s a maddening thing to imagine, but remarkably, it’s true.
If there was any doubt about the meddling ways of producers, then surely the backstory of Taxi Driver stands as a testimony for their endless desire to destroy the creations that they helm. A case in point is how the smiling pop star was almost the benefactor of one of the most prised ‘troubled’ roles in Hollywood history simply because he knew the producer. As Diamond (which is amazingly his real name) explains: “I was considered for it for a whole minute before they signed Robert DeNiro. I knew the producer and he must have thought I looked like that type of character – you know, sullen and crazy.”
No Neil, in actual fact, you almost certainly don’t seem like the type of guy who could depict Travis Bickle, despite your removed and somewhat puzzling interview persona that Will Ferrell has often excellently parodied. Thankfully, for the sake of the movie, he couldn’t take on the role. As he explained himself: “I was back on the road by then and had no time to do anything. Finally, De Niro signed and did a great job.”
A “great job” is actually somewhat of an understatement. De Niro perfectly embodied the simultaneous somnambulant slide and vividly snapped edge of the dangerous and amoral Bickle like no other. The idea of a musician swanning in and casually fulfilling the same complexity is beyond reckoning. However, Diamond’s day on the big screen would soon come in an equally important but rather more straightforward role.
In 1980, four years on from potentially starring in Taxi Driver, the ‘Sweet Caroline’ singer would take on the lead role in The Jazz Singer alongside perhaps the most revered thespian of all time, Laurence Olivier. For his part in the movie, he became the highest-paid debut actor ever, cashing a cheque of $3.5million. While this fact in of itself is a tricky one to digest, at least the pompous quiff and pose-striking ways suit him a lot more than the punk attitude of the Mohawk sporting Bickle.
Alas, picture if you will Paul Schrader, the man behind the screenplay for Taxi Driver, when he heard that Neil Diamond was in contention to portray his creation. After all, the film was part autobiographically based on his life. Imagine, if you will, suffering through the disenfranchisement of a divorce and an unfurling drift towards the demimonde of society, braving the streets on a rough cab route and transfiguring your downfall into a screenplay that became a thrilling reflection of a fractured society… and then hearing, “Great news Paul, Diamond’s agreed to do it, and he’s lending permission to soundtrack the finale with ‘Forever In Blue Jeans’, it should be a box office smash!”