Director: Leo Penn
Screenplay: Lester Pine, Tina Pine
Starring: Sammy Davis Jr, Louis Armstrong, Cicely Tyson, Ossie Davis, Mel Tormé, Frank Sinatra Jr, Peter Lawford
Running Time: 104 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
By the mid-60s, Sammy Davis Jr. had become a mega-star. Working tirelessly in Vegas as well as regularly on TV, films and in the recording studio, he was everywhere and hugely popular. His fame tailed off a little from the late 60s onwards but, just before that tilt, he starred in an interesting little film that seemed a step away from his usual roles in the ‘Rat Pack’ capers and similar.
That film was A Man Called Adam and, though it wasn’t a big critical or commercial success and is little known these days, it’s an interesting enough film to receive the remastered Blu-ray treatment by Studiocanal. Being set in the world of jazz and featuring an impressive cast, I was curious (I’m a big jazz fan) and got hold of a screener to give my thoughts.
A Man Called Adam sees Davis play the titular character, Adam Johnson. He’s a jazz cornetist who is well regarded in the scene but has a drink and drug problem, on top of an unpredictable vicious streak that often gets him in trouble and is causing his manager Manny (Peter Lawford) grief. One night, after walking out on his jazz quintet’s gig, Adam comes home to find Civil Rights activist Claudia Ferguson (Cicely Tyson) and her grandfather Willie (Louis Armstrong) staying there. It turns out Adam’s friend Nelson (Ossie Davis) had let them stay there for a couple of days whilst Adam was presumably away on tour.
The drunken Adam initially kicks Willie out, but Nelson talks him round, helped by the fact Adam likes the look of Claudia. She’s not impressed by his state though and shuns his advances.
The next day, a sober Adam apologises and he and Claudia form a close bond. Claudia is aware of Adam’s flaws but believes he’s simply troubled and can be reformed. Adam admires her strength and independent spirit too, so they reach a strong level of understanding.
As the pressures of the world (largely brought on by racism) and personal demons (Adam killed his wife and daughter in a car accident through drunken driving) get too much for Adam though, he struggles to control himself and enters a downward spiral. Claudia does what she can to help, but is he too far gone?
A Man Called Adam is a notable film for a number of reasons. Though several prominent black actors had already made a name for themselves in Hollywood by this point, the film is still an early example of a relatively major American film with a majority black cast. It was also the first significant Hollywood production to be produced by a person of colour, Ike Turner.
Equally important to note here is how the film’s central character is portrayed. Many other films featuring black protagonists up to this point had portrayed them in a saintly, holier-than-though light (largely embodied in Sidney Poitier’s earlier roles – no offence to that incredible actor). In A Man Called Adam, however, the titular character can be a real a**hole (pardon my French), with deep-seated personal issues. In this sense, he feels like a more rounded, flawed human being than usual in a Hollywood production.
Reportedly, Miles Davis was somewhat of an inspiration for the character, with his famously fiery personality and substance abuse problems. However, Sammy Davis Jr. also shared numerous traits with his character, perhaps even more than Miles. He’d even had a similarly transformative car accident, so, in the film, it really feels like he’s baring his soul.
As such, Sammy Davis Jr’s performance is the main draw for the film. He’s a powerful, commanding presence and also captures the fractured side of his character in a raw, visceral fashion. It’s quite an eye-opener for anyone who simply sees Davis as a straight-up entertainer, a dancer, singer and comedian. Here he proves he could be a pretty damned good actor in the right role. Supposedly Nat King Cole was originally meant to take the lead in the film, but that seems like a poor choice after seeing Davis take it on.
Another major selling point of the film is its soundtrack. Davis gets to sing a few numbers and his cornet playing is dubbed by the great Nat Adderly (Davis does a fairly convincing job of matching this too). The scenes with his combo are electrifying. You also get a couple of great numbers from Louis Armstrong and Mel Torme. The soundtrack is composed and conducted by Benny Carter, who’s a great talent in his own right.
All this said, however, the film on a whole is quite flawed. The Adam character doesn’t have a strong arc, so the downward spiral of his character is relentlessly bleak, making it a bit of a chore to watch at times.
I found the dialogue quite clunky and heavy-handed too, not helped by a couple of less-than-stellar supporting cast members (Frank Sinatra Jr. for instance, isn’t particularly good).
The direction, from Leo Penn (father of Sean and Chris), can be a little bland too, though there are a few stylish flourishes here and there. Penn worked almost solely in TV through his long career behind the camera and this shows through the often unimaginative presentation.
Overall, though not the greatest film in the world, suffering from a relentlessly downbeat tone and some heavy-handedness, the film is nevertheless well worthy of rediscovery. On top of making several bold steps forward in racial inequality in Hollywood, it boasts a strong central performance and an excellent jazz soundtrack.
A Man Called Adam is out on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from 16th August, released by Studiocanal. I watched the Blu-ray version and it looks fantastic – pin-sharp and rich in detail. There’s one scene that’s strangely softer and a fraction bleached out, but I’m assuming that was one that might have been missing from the original negative for whatever reason.
The audio is great too, with the wonderful soundtrack coming through beautifully.
– New: Interview with Radio 3 broadcaster and jazz expert Jumoké Fashola
– New: Audio commentary by film historian and critic Sergio Mims
I really enjoyed Sergio Mims’ commentary. His track is loaded with fascinating background information on those involved in the film and he also does a great job of putting the film in social and historical context.
Jumoké Fashola’s interview is much shorter, running around 15 minutes, but offers an equally informative whistle-stop overview of the film’s background and merits. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole commentary, this is a great substitute.
Not a huge set of extras then, but what is included is vital and the picture and sound quality are great, so it’s a worthwhile purchase overall.