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There weren't many major black film stars in the 1960s. Popular entertainers that wanted to cross over into film work often had to become their own producers, as was the case with pioneer Harry Belafonte a few years before. Former child performer and consistently successful singer Sammy Davis Jr. was uniquely positioned to strike out on his own, having gained plenty of mainstream fame and hipster cred with his association with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin's stellar "Rat Pack".
Davis had been a welcome presence in movies and television since 1959; we knew him as the Rat Pack's ultra-cool black member in pictures like Ocean's Eleven. Financing A Man Called Adam outside the studio system, Davis turned to independent filmmaking talent and his plentiful connections in the music scene. The 1966 musical drama's strength is its excellent mixed-race cast, which includes a number of musical heavyweights.
Jazz trumpet legend Adam Johnson (Davis Jr.) is his own worst enemy. A heavy drinker with a bitter grudge against the world, he alternates between nice-guy sweetness and self-destructive rages. Reacting violently to a heckler, Adam walks out on his own band; when he defies his agent (Peter Lawford) he becomes temporarily unemployable. Faithful friend Nelson Davis (Ossie Davis) admits that he can do little to help, especially when Adam lashes out at those that care for him the most. Adam meets Claudia Ferguson (Cicely Tyson), a civil rights volunteer who offers him love and stability. Hitting bottom, Adam begs his agent for work, offering to tour the South as had been planned. He takes his young trumpet protégè Vincent (Frank Sinatra, Jr.) along on the tour and "shows self-discipline" when taunted by a racist in the audience. Returning to New York, Adam is welcomed back by his band, but continues his reckless drinking.
A Man Called Adam is a handsomely produced and well-acted B&W character study set against an authentic jazz music background. Trumpeter Nat Adderly is the ghost musician behind Sammy Davis Jr's. expressive mime, and the jazz session scenes are top quality. Louis Armstrong acts as well as sings, playing a popular club performer nearing retirement and feeling left out of the changing music scene. Only Mel Tormé participates as a conventional guest star, showing up to sing at a party.
Screenwriters Lester and Tina Pine show the same sympathy for the problems of minorities that they brought to the later comedy-dramas Popi and Claudine. What A Man Called Adam sorely lacks is a sense of humor. Davis's acting is good but the character of Adam Johnson is ultimately unsympathetic. Despite his underdog status and tragic history (a car crash took away his family), Adam is not a good emotional investment. As with Robert De Niro's insufferable musician in Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, we spend most of the movie hoping that the unpredictable protagonist will stop torturing his associates. Adam spews hateful verbal abuse at loved ones, only to come back later begging to be forgiven. Ossie Davis' Nelson advises Cicely Tyson's Claudia that a relationship with Adam will only result in pain, a prediction borne out by events. Adam abandons needy friends and seems eager to be provoked into brawls. Nelson defuses one of Adam's fights with an upbeat announcement from a bandstand microphone, reminding us that disruptive behavior can get the most talented artist blackballed. The irony is that when Adam reforms and ceases striking back at the world, we can sense that some essential part of his spirit has been broken.
Director Leo Penn (the father of actor Sean Penn) worked almost exclusively in television. His fine work here shows an excellent eye for staging and camera blocking. With his editor Carl Lerner, Penn gives the essentially downbeat drama a lively pace and creates unusually good optical montages to span scene transitions. He elicits a fine supporting performance from Frank Sinatra Jr., and allows the esteemed Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson the rare opportunity to play fully dimensional middle class characters. Tyson's Claudia sports an authentic early Afro hairstyle, as opposed to the club-crawling beauties around her with their straightened hair and fancy dresses.
Lola Falana, Michael V. Gazzo and Kenneth Tobey have small parts, and we're told that a young Morgan Freeman can be spotted as an extra in a party scene.
Lionsgate's A Man Called Adam is presented in a special Music Makers edition. The enhanced widescreen B&W transfer is very sharp, with good contrasts. An animated title sequence has the appearance of a jazz record album of the time. The DVD comes with a second CD disc with Sammy Davis Jr.'s excellent cover version of "I Want to Be Wanted" (sung in the movie) as well as four other unrelated songs by Bobby Darin, Ray Charles and Omara Portuondo.
An exceptional musical drama not easily pigeonholed as a "black issue" film, A Man Called Adam gets the atmosphere right yet forgets to give audiences a character they can root for. It missed the brass ring in 1966 but now plays as a solid and uncompromised character study.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Man Called Adam rates:
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