Judge Bill Gibron endorses ALF's First Rule of Restaurant Dining: Never eat where there's a picture of the chef with Sammy Davis Jr.
A great man undermined by a poor product.
An anomaly in the mostly white world of nightclub entertainment, Sammy Davis Jr. rose up from the racist minstrel and vaudeville circuit to become one of the preeminent black entertainers in the world. An exceptionally talented man, he was equally adept at dancing and singing, corny comedy and serious dramatics. He was that quintessential lost icon of the modern entertainment industry—the nightclub showman—and it's hard to imagine him having a place in today's hip-hop / kiddie pop arrangements.
But anyone who ever saw Sammy perform, either on stage, in a dinner theater setting, or during one of the numerous televised specials in which he appeared, remembers one sure thing: the man was an energetic dynamo, a one-man amusement factory full of power ballads, sensational tapping, eloquent pathos, and marvelous impressionist skills. Sadly, since Davis's death in 1990, only fleeting memories of his social and show business significance remains: his link to Sinatra's Rat Pack, a gig many felt demeaned him both as a performer and as a minority; the infamous kiss of TV bigot Archie Bunker, marking a symbolic turning point for race relations in the media (or at least, that's how the propaganda went); the numerous imitations, from Billy Crystal's genial take to occasionally more devastating, distorted dissections. As they have done with other classic performers before, Passport Video is releasing a one-hour compilation purporting to present Sammy "singing at his best." While any Davis Jr. is better than none, this DVD makes that statement that much harder to support.
This critic witnessed several of Sammy Davis Jr.'s most stellar entertainment moments throughout the course of his life, and aside from the inclusion of "You Rascal You," featured in the politically incorrect two-reeler from 1933, Rufus Jones for President (Sammy was a small fry in this short), none of them are here. Sure, we are treated to various Kinescope performances from the '50s and '60s, including Sam's entire 15-minute opening act for a benefit he did with Sinatra and Dean Martin in 1965 (later marketed as the only existing Rat Pack concert in existence), but Davis's career was much broader in scope than the scarce sampling here.
Sammy was a force to be reckoned with up until his death. Even in failing health, he had a tremendous onstage gift. One such example in particular that stands out is his exceptional reading of The Phantom of the Opera's "The Music of the Night" from a Frank Sinatra / Liza Minnelli / Sammy concert special in the late '80s (Minnelli was subbing for an ailing Dean Martin). Davis was a fixture on the pop charts as well, with hits including the signature songs from Broadway, "I've Gotta Be Me" (from Golden Rainbow) and "What Kind of Fool Am I?" (from Stop the World…I Want to Get Off) to the early '70s efforts "The Candy Man" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the endearing "Mr. Bojangles." But Passport must pass by those highlights to offer us what they have access to. And what they provide on this DVD is less than Sammy, either at his "best…"or ever.
The cloudy, often muddled clips reveal that, first and foremost, Sammy was a true star. He was able to save mediocre material (the sluggish song and dance of "The Birth of the Blues") through sheer force of will, and sell the incredibly faux hip (the "altered" lyrics to "This Could Be The Start of Something Big" to fit the cool cat grooviness of NBC's musical variety show Hullabaloo) to an audience who knew he was more "in touch" than that. Davis was a fabulous singer, and his voice does soar on "My Shining Hour" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leaving Soon for New York" (from Porgy and Bess). But the rest of the material here is filled with gags and gimmicks. Sammy impersonates famous singers (Billy Eckstein, Vaughn Monroe, Nat "King" Cole) not once, but twice here (on "Because of You" and "One for My Baby") and each time the fun wears thin. Some borderline racist material manifests itself in the stupid "Shall We Dance" (featuring the dictionary definition of a hanger-on, Peter Lawford), and the drums-only accompaniment for the classic torch song "One for My Baby" destroys a surefire number. From the Motown / Supremes stupidity of the "Toot, Toot, Tootsie" routine to the sublime skill of "Hey There," Davis does consistently rise above the elements to earn his title of Mr. Entertainment. But if Passport thinks we fans will be fooled with 50 minutes of mostly mediocre material (thankfully, they provide a narrator to underscore and explain the situations we see Davis in), the non-musical answer to the Broadway question about how big of a dupe one can be is answered simply…a very big one.
Like Dean Martin: Encore, Passport also tries to pawn off atrocious stock footage failures as a respectable representation of old television and screen transfers. The ruse again just doesn't work. The 1.33:1 full screen farce is abysmal to look at—with the exception of "You Rascal You"—and is only matched by the hideous Dolby Digital Mono pseudo-Stereo presented as an excuse for digital dynamics. The aural aspects are flat, tinny, tired, distorted, overmodulated, and far too brash to handle the technology's touchy temperament. There are no bonuses here either, no attempt to stretch our understanding of Sammy Davis Jr. and his music, no overview of his career or collection of discography / filmography breakdowns. This is bare-bones, disintegrating-nitrate-to-VHS-to-DVD imaging that does a disservice to the legacy of one of entertainment's truly stellar showmen.
If there is a single image of this man that will remain in many people's memory, it will be his jeweled hand holding a microphone, glass eye askew and mouth in full-toothed timbre, belting out the final words to the ultimate power ballad, "I Gotta Be Me!" As a Jewish, African American celebrity who witnessed both bigotry and ballyhoo first hand, nothing defines Sammy Davis Jr. better than that caricature…especially not this dismal DVD.
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