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  Man Called Adam, A Horn Of Plenty
Year: 1966
Director: Leo Penn
Stars: Sammy Davis Jr, Louis Armstrong, Ossie Davis, Cicely Tyson, Frank Sinatra Jr, Mel Tormé, Peter Lawford, Johnny Brown, George Rhodes, Michael Silva, Kai Winding, Ja'net Dubois, Michael Lipton, Lola Falana, Kenneth Tobey, Gerald S. O'Loughlin
Genre: Drama, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Adam Johnson (Sammy Davis Jr) is a world class trumpet player who everyone thinks should be much more successful than he is, but thanks to his demons he remains doing the jazz circuit in small clubs which may be sold out, but are not exactly prestigious. Take tonight, when is is onstage with his band and goes into a moody song that seems to fit his persona - but there's a drunk guy in the audience who stands up from his table and starts loudly complaining, shouting that Adam should be playing something cheerier. The musician is outraged at what he perceives as an insult, shouts back and throws the guy a dollar for the juke box, then storms off...

No, this man called Adam is not an easy guy to be around, and appeared to represent more than simply a loser who is angry at the choices he has made in life, he is angry at the choices that have been foisted upon himself. This included a lot to do with the racial politics of the era when Civil Rights had come to such prominence and the black community across the West was asserting itself, not just in the face of a white establishment, but in the faces of the ordinary whites who accepted this as the status quo and decided it should be ever thus. However, not every white person was going to put up with that, and as the black resistance rose, so did an agreement across the races.

This should not stand, basically, was what they were saying, and that would have made for an electrifying movie, which makes it kind of disappointing that the story preferred to have Davis play a man cracking up through alcoholism and self-loathing, and concentrate on that aspect instead. Not that he was not up to the task: a hugely talented man, he was sometimes regarded as an Uncle Tom by the more radical elements, but we can see here his beliefs in the equality of his race were deeply felt, and though he may have palled up with Richard Nixon, which still gets brought up in relation to Davis, there was no doubt, watching this, he had a lot of mental pain from his experiences.

Davis plays Adam like he's living it, and it's an excellent performance of what apparently was meant to be a loose biopic of Miles Davis (no relation), the jazz instrumentalist, as he had lived up to that stage in the mid-sixties, which at least explains why the project keeps veering away from the social and the political and towards the personal. But maybe all these decades later, you feel as if an audience would be more engaged by those big questions the film throws up - BLM could be very interested in the sequence where Adam is harassed by a couple of cops and retaliates by beating them up, to a degree anyway. We had seen musicians cracking up in movies over the course of many reiterations, and indeed had seen that happen in real life as well, so there was not much surprising dramatically to experience here.

Naturally, the attraction for a certain viewer would be the music, a snapshot of where jazz had reached in the sixties, not exactly Miles Davis - Nat Adderley performed Sammy's solos for him to mime to, and yes, he was playing a cornet, not a trumpet as referenced in the dialogue. It was a movie version of what sixties jazz should sound like, so Adam doesn't get too wild with it, just wild enough to reflect his mental breakdown, but as far as that went there was much to appreciate as these people knew what they were doing. It was not only Davis Jr who distinguished this cast, as there was some mighty talent filling out its ranks, chief among them Louis Armstrong, a performer like Sammy who was accused of pandering to white audiences, yet had nevertheless changed the course of music forever: he has touching scene where he admits to Adam that his time has passed, and Adam consoles him in a few words. Not to mention Cicely Tyson as the love interest who tries to stem Adam's anger, and Ossie Davis who still believes in him; the Rat Pack connection was there with a uncharacteristically icy Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra Jr who Adam is mentor to. Overall, missed opportunities, but some spot on too.

BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL Platforms - 16th AUGUST 2021.

Special features:

New: Interview with Radio 3 broadcaster and jazz expert Jumoké Fashola
New: Audio commentary by film historian and critic Sergio Mims]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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