Judge Clark Douglas isn't gonna to play the music you wanna hear, mother.
The scene was cool, the jazz was hot and he was king.
"You tell Manny I kept my composure?"
Facts of the Case
Adam (Sammy Davis, Jr., Ocean's Eleven) is a jazz musician. Well, not just any jazz musician. He's one of the best trumpet players in the country, though his erratic behavior has prevented him from reaching the sort of superstardom his talents should have led him to. Now, Adam finds himself at a turning point. His life has the potential to be a rich, rewarding one. He's in a relationship with a wonderful woman named Claudia (Cicely Tyson, Diary of a Mad Black Woman), and his career seems just about ready to really take off. Will Adam be able to control his temper, or will he allow himself to self-destruct yet again?
A Man Called Adam is a disappointing little drama, a movie that's clearly trying as hard as it can to achieve gritty intensity and dramatic greatness, but falling flat on its face at almost every turn. It's a bad movie, but at least it goes down swinging. I've always said that spectacular failures are generally more interesting than timid successes, and that's certainly the case with A Man Called Adam. I wouldn't dream of recommending the movie, but odds are you'll stay glued to the screen if you decide to give it a watch.
The film is attempting to achieve something rather interesting: a portrait of a volatile African-American male unsuccessfully attempting to stay cool in the midst of the tough jazz scene and the even tougher American climate of the mid-1960s. Fusing together then-topical scenes reflecting racial tensions of the era with a hot jazz soundtrack, the film attempts to immerse the viewer in the loud frustration of Adam's mind. Alas, despite the film's noble efforts, to the modern eye A Man Called Adam will play as terribly dated and unfortunately silly.
The movie's attempt to capture the cool slang of the jazz scene comes across as corny and inauthentic, with everybody throwing around phrases like, "That guy's one hip cat!" and "What an ofay mother!" It just seems way too forced, an unsuccessful attempt to make the viewer feel like they're watching a story taking place in the "real" world of jazz.
However, the film's biggest problem is the performance of Sammy Davis, Jr. You might take any single scene from the film on its own and come up with the impression that Davis, Jr. actually gives a great performance, due to his commanding intensity. Alas, that commanding intensity is very poorly moderated from scene to scene, resulting in an overall performance that's simply overcooked and ultimately ineffective. In addition, Davis' volatile outbursts are presented in a somewhat odd way: half the time, Davis is displaying righteous outrage about being treated badly by someone, but the other half of the time he's just being a whiny, selfish jerk. As a result, it's hard to care about him too much.
On the plus side, we have the music. There's no denying that A Man Called Adam features a pretty hot soundtrack, not only spotlighting the talents of Sammy Davis, Jr. but also Louis Armstrong (underused in his charming role as Adam's jazz legend neighbor), Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra Jr., and many others. Noted jazz artist Benny Carter provides the equally hot score (which I feel obliged to mention is available via a limited CD release from the fine folks at Film Score Monthly).
Another plus is the supporting cast. Ossie Davis is appealing in his role as an old friend of Adam's, offering a level-headed rationality that plays well against Davis, Jr.'s theatrics. Cicely Tyson is even more impressive as the love interest, as she's given a character that actually has more to do than simply pine after a leading man. It's stated on numerous occasions that Claudia is a faithful follower of the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Adam tends to resent her approach of non-violent pacifism. "So this is the new Negro," he sneers mockingly when she refuses to hit him after he insults her. The pacifism vs. violent activism argument is addressed in a somewhat ungainly yet compelling way in the film; one of the few areas that manages to actually work.
The transfer is okay, littered with lots of scratches and flecks but otherwise looking respectable enough. The darker scenes benefit from solid shading, though there are a few moments that seem to veer from black-and-white into an odd shade of purple. Audio is strong throughout, with the jazz performances crisply preserved. While it's not exactly a knockout track, it gets the job done with clarity. There are no extras on the disc, though the CD that is being included with all of these "Music Makers" releases is present here (featuring a handful of jazz cues from the '50s and '60s).
Despite some great music and an ambitious screenplay, the powder keg that is A Man Called Adam never manages to click. Too bad.
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