EV Classics has released The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live, a 1985 concert film shot in Germany at the Spielbank auditorium in Hohensyburg (the original title of this German TV show appears in the credits: Sammy Davis Jr. in Deutschland). Running a speedy 58 minutes, Davis sings all his big numbers and keeps the patter to an absolute minimum. It's a tight set, and for fans of the entertainer, it's a sharp performance.
I would guess that the whole "Rat Pack" nostalgia revival from a few years ago is probably now over, perhaps limiting the retail appeal of The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live. That's too bad, because it's a great look at the consummate entertainer. I was lucky enough to see Sinatra (shaky, but still in control) and Dino (totally out of it for real) perform live, but never Davis; from the looks of The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live, he put on a hell of a show. Often cited as the most versatile of the Rat Packers, you could always tell that Davis was giving an unqualified 100 percent effort in his film and concert performances. Older yet still spry here in this 1985 concert (Davis was 60 at the time), it's obvious that years of performing had honed his craft to achieve maximum effect from a more leisurely effort.
Wearing about 27 pounds of rings and bracelets, Davis comes out in an immaculate tux, and immediately launches into a heartfelt rendition of Where or When. With a really tight orchestra backing him, including strings and horns, Davis moves into a showstopper, New York, New York, and it's clear to the appreciative audience that time hasn't diminished his talent. Keeping the in-between song patter to almost nil, Davis just keeps the songs coming, ranging from a slightly mocking version of Candy Man (which the audience didn't appreciate) to big volume renditions of What Kind of Fool Am I and The Lady is a Tramp, to a pretty amazing scat-and-beat box improvisation of I've Got You Under My Skin/The Girl From Ipanema
Davis even takes time to tap out a number, during I'm Singing in the Rain, proving that at 60, he was probably a better tap dancer than most professionals half his age. As a special treat (he stated that he didn't do this part of the act in the States anymore), Davis trots out his familiar celebrity impersonations, including Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong, Bogart, Cagney, Grant and Jimmy Stewart (only this last one isn't so successful). Winding up his set with his signature tune, Mr. Bojangles, Davis was the very definition of the consummate entertainer: a performer who wows his or her fans, while winning over indifferent audience members with his sheer professionalism.
Here are the 12 songs sung by Davis in The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live:
Where or When
New York, New York
What I Did for Love
I'm Singing in the Rain
As Long as (S)he Needs Me/What King of Fool, Am I
The Lady is a Tramp
Improvisation/I've Got You Under My Skin/The Girl From Ipanema
I've Gotta Be Me
For Once In My Life
As Time Goes By
The full frame video image from The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live isn't the greatest, with a transfer that had a lot of compression problems holding solid blacks together during Davis' spotlight performances. Not pretty on a big monitor.
The audio for The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live, on the other hand, is sensational, with a choice between Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, Dolby Surround 5.1, and DTS Digital Surround Sound. Terrific speaker separation during the orchestrated pieces, and when Sammy hits those high, strong notes, look out.
There are no extras for The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live.
Running a tight set at 58 minutes, Davis proves his versatility and showmanship in this entertaining 1985 concert film, performed in Germany. Fans of Davis will no doubt pick this up; the sound is fantastic, but the video transfer leaves something to be desired. I recommend The Best of Sammy Davis Jr. Live.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.