A Man Called Adam review – Sammy Davis Jr swings in earnest race-issue drama

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Time has not lent much to this histrionically earnest issue picture starring Sammy Davis Jr from 1966, in which the life of a troubled African American jazz hepcat is quaintly imagined by the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Lester and Tina Pine; the director is industry stalwart Leo Penn (father of Sean), who had been blacklisted in his former career as an actor after refusing to testify to the red-baiting Huac. Well, the film certainly challenges the all-white consensus, and a supporting cast including Cicely Tyson and no less a figure than Louis Armstrong gives it substance.

Davis plays Adam Johnson, a brilliant but mercurial jazz musician and singer, facing casual racism from the cops and stricken with depression and alcoholism after a car crash killed his wife and child and blinded one of his own musicians. His wild fits of anger on and off stage bring him close to meltdown; but then he meets and falls in love with the charismatic and beautiful civil liberties campaigner Claudia Ferguson (Tyson) whose grandfather is the much-respected jazzman Willie Ferguson (Armstrong). Adam’s life looks like it’s taking an upward path, and he is also mentoring a young white musician called Vincent, played by a very callow Frank Sinatra Jr, who – unlike Davis – does not convincingly master the art of miming to other people’s horn playing. But then Adam is forced to go on a tour of the south by his exploitative and arrogant recording company boss, played by Davis’s fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford. This character’s name happens to be … erm … Manny. Some stereotypical thinking here?

There are some clunking moments, including a very squaresville singing appearance from Mel Tormé. And of course the bohemian club scene is picturesquely represented: loads of couples nodding along, entranced, and what is evidently supposed to be a sort of Roy Lichtenstein on the wall (that is: a poster saying “Pow!”). There is also one closeup shot of two young white women sitting close together, one of them having very short hair. This film has a certain value as a historical document.

• A Man Called Adam is released on 16 August on digital platforms.

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