Some films try to cram so much emotion into each frame that they leave you feeling a little dizzy, like after a roller-coaster ride. You're exhausted by the dramatic twists and turns of the story, but exhilarated by the effort; confused by the wildly conflicting shifts in tone, yet inspired by what you believe the filmmakers were straining to achieve. That's what the experience of watching "A Man Called Adam" is like.
Filmed in 1966, while the Civil Rights struggle was shaking the United States out of its complacency over the so-called "Negro problem", with Black Panthers, protests, sit-ins, and urban uprisings sending their angry smoke into the sky, this confrontational little black & white film tells the story of a prodigiously talented jazz musician and singer, Adam Johnson, who is played by none other than the similarly hugely gifted performer, Sammy Davis, Jr.
Adam has some serious personal and social problems. He's arrogant to the point of violence, foul-mouthed, selfish and brutal in his dealings with women, drinks and smokes too much, and, well, you get the picture, eh? Self-destructive is an understatement. You're subjected to about an hour-and-a-half of all this masochistic suffering, blow-by-blow, insult after insult. It gets kind of intense after a while, to the point where you're about to throw your hands up and exclaim in exasperation: "This guy is a major (expletive of your choice)!"
And yet...and yet, as you watch Sammy Davis, Jr. run himself through a wringer trying to hold on to the reins of this sad and tortured genius, you begin to be impressed by his energy as manages to keep such a potentially unsympathetic character alive and breathing when you wish he'd just go away and die. It dawns on you slowly that all that energy MUST be controlled by a great deal of skill. And suddenly, it's like Mr. Davis ceases to be Sammy and you think, "Well, maybe he ain't acting." And that's what guides this movie to its occasional moments of transcendence over its sometimes-manic dramatics. When you read that Sammy Davis at the height of his Las Vegas fame as a member of the "Rat Pack" was not allowed to stay overnight in the hotels he performed in because of his Black skin color, you KNOW he wasn't acting. He becomes larger than life, which makes the tragic life of his character, Adam Johnson, burn like a fuse in your brain as he twists a knife slowly, clinically, into your heart -- just a twist -- so you can know what it feels like to be wounded by irrational, hateful forces, as he has been wounded.
Of course, by necessity in a film, Mr. Davis couldn't be a one-man show as he was so successfully in his live performances on stage. Arrayed around him in supporting roles is a black, brown and beige garden of unique and talented actors and actresses such as Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson; personalities like Johnny Brown, George Kirby, and lovely Lola Falana; once-in-a-century kind of musical artists such as Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, and others who later found fame on television, such as Jeanette DuBois ("Good Times"). If you're sharp, you'll spot a young and lanky Morgan Freeman in the party scene with the stylish jazz singer, Mel Torme.
And lest you think that a movie featuring jazz musicians is all sadness and blues, then, baby, just wait `til you see and hear all the cats wailin' through some swingin' modern jazz numbers composed and arranged by Benny Carter and performed (some on-screen and some not) by the likes of trumpeter Nat Adderley, trombonist Kai Winding, pianist "Junior" Mance, and drummer Jo Jones. As they said back in the day, "all the pots are on", so get ready for some serious cookin'!