A Man Called Adam is a film of historical significance for a number of reasons—including that it’s the first film directed by Leo Penn, the father of Sean and Chris Penn. Leo was blacklisted as an actor during the HUAC era due to his strong support of trade unions and refusal to name names. He reinvented himself in the early ‘60s, mainly as a director of episodic television, a role he pursued well into the mid ‘90s (he died in 1998), but A Man Called Adam was his only real theatrical release. Another film ,1988’s Judgment in Berlin, had a very limited theatrical release.
Sammy Davis Jr. in perhaps a career-best role plays Adam Johnson, a talented jazz cornetist who is plagued by his demons, including alcoholism and feeling responsibility for the untimely deaths of his wife and child. He becomes friends with legendary jazz musician Willie Ferguson (played by… Louis Armstrong), and falls head over heels for Willie’s granddaughter Claudia (Cicely Tyson, who would go onto have a very tumultuous relationship with Miles Davis). But will his demons get the better of him?
The film certainly has its heart in the right place, and it is partly shocking just to see pre-Blaxploitation film full of an almost completely African-American cast, other than Frank Sinatra Jr., who plays Adam’s buddy in the film. You can feel the pain coming from Sammy Davis Jr. throughout the film, and when you find out that Adam is setting off to do a tour of the South, just by his mannerisms you know Sammy has lived that and all the dread of what could happen. Ossie Davies has a good part as well as Adam’s good friend Nelson.
Overall, the film falls a little too much into mid-‘60s pop psychology, but the stuff about the civil rights movement of the ‘60s is effective. Sammy Davis Jr. had a complicated relationship with the Black community, despite being a Civil Rights activist—he infamously endorsed Nixon in 1972, something he later regretted. Adam is also portrayed as an abusive alcoholic, and while you’ve seen this all before, it’s an effective little film. It’s pretty obvious that for large chunks of the musical numbers Sammy isn’t playing his cornet, which was dubbed in afterwards by a more experienced cornetist, Nat Adderley.
The disc just has an audio commentary with film historian Sergio Mims and an interview with radio broadcast Jumoké Fashola, who doesn’t seem to know that much about the film (seems to have seen it the day before the interview was shot) but talks about the jazz in the film.