A Man Called Adam

A Man Called Adam

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Adam Johnson is a talented African-American jazz trumpeter, plagued by ill health, racism, alcoholism and a short temper, as well as guilt over the deaths years before of his wife and child. The result is a caustic personality that wears even on those who care the most about him, such as his best friend Nelson, and Vincent, a young Caucasian trumpeter whom Adam mentors. Arriving unexpectedly at his New York home drunk after walking out on his jazz quintet, Adam finds prominent Civil Rights worker Claudia Ferguson and her grandfather, Willie, who is himself a well-known jazz trumpeter, in his apartment. The two have been given access to the apartment by Nelson, but despite having authorized this, the drunken Adam is rude to both, including making a vulgar pass at Claudia.

The next day, a sober Adam is apologetic and strikes up a new friendship with the two. This eventually leads to a romance with Claudia, who cautions Adam that from that point on, she will not allow him to be any less than he is. Nelson warns Claudia against it, saying that although he understands what she sees in Adam, he will still ultimately only hurt her. She is not dissuaded, saying that she is determined not to let Adam destroy himself.

The relationship has a positive effect on Adam and all is well until an encounter with some racist police officers. Adam tells them off and fights with them when they seek to take him into custody. Claudia is upset that he intentionally antagonized them, while Adam can’t understand why she thinks he should submit to being humiliated. They quarrel, leading to Adam drinking more and beginning to lose control of his temper. Manny, Adam’s booking agent, says he intends to send Adam on a tour of the South, insisting Adam accept whatever racist treatment he may encounter there. Adam violently threatens Manny and later physically assaults a jealous former girlfriend who had just slapped Claudia.

Adam tells Claudia she is too good for him, but when he subsequently takes ill, she moves in with him and their relationship is renewed. He confesses to her his secret that he was driving while intoxicated during the car accident which killed his family, having gotten drunk in response to being demeaned and insulted by a racist police officer. Claudia convinces Adam’s old group to reunite with him and things again seem to be looking up for him. However, the police pressure the owner of the club where the group plays to ban him. When he learns of this, Adam lashes out at everyone, including Nelson, Claudia and Vincent.

A drunken Adam crawls back to Manny, who sends Adam on the Southern tour. Adam asks to have Vincent come along and they perform well together. On one occasion, Adam and Vincent hug after a particularly well-received number, prompting a violent audience reaction. This time, Adam maintains control of himself and does not respond. The tour continues very successfully, and upon returning home, a cheerful Adam proposes to Claudia.

Afterward, Vincent is violently attacked in front of Adam and Claudia. Claudia looks for Adam to do something, but he remains frozen, only watching as a helpless Vincent is pummeled. Finally, Adam just runs away. Claudia reflects that it was her insistence that caused Adam to change from a man who would never accepted any slight to the man she had just witnessed. She regrets that she effectively took away his manhood.

Eventually, Adam resurfaces at the club, looking “chewed up and spit out”, as Willie puts it. Adam is relieved to learn that Vincent is not dead. Despite his physical condition, Adam accepts the invitation to join the group on stage. His performance is first brilliant, with Claudia, Willie and Vincent all watching and thoroughly enjoying his resurgence. Soon, though, Adam begins to struggle physically and his playing turns frenetic. Eventually, everyone stops playing, leaving nothing but Adam’s fevered trumpeting, which he attempts to continue even while virtually doubling over in agony. Finally, he collapses and dies, leaving his friends to grimly mourn him.

REVIEW:

Well, it finally happened. With A Man Called Adam, I have now officially gone through every film that Louis Armstrong has starred in, to my knowledge. I’ll double check that stat once I finish this post, though. I actually have been putting this film off for the past two or three years because I thought it was some uninteresting sappy drama which was sure to put me to sleep, but that was not to be the case.

What is this about? Sammy Davis Jr. stars as a respected but volatile jazz trumpeter on a downward spiral sparked by racism and personal tragedy. A relationship with a civil rights activist (Cicely Tyson) seems to lift him out of his doldrums, but the turnaround is temporary.

What did I like?

Themes. This is one of those films that is able to tackle such heavy themes as racism, alcoholism, etc. without getting too preachy. Of course, when you’re dealing with musicians, what do you expect, since it is very well documented how much they were subject to racism and were rampant, raging alcoholics. Some things never change. These are sensitive topics and, in 1966, weren’t exactly the kind of coffee table conversation starters one would use in polite conversation.

Music in black and white. Nearly 30 years after the release of this film, a similar flick will be released, Mo’ Better Blues. Why am I bringing that film up? Well, no matter what you think of the film, it cannot be denied that the music is a huge part of its success. The formula was laid down with this film and the great music laid down by the liked of Nat Adderly, Mel Torme, and the incomparable Louis Armstrong. I also have to mention that this is in black and white. In 1966, films had long since made the shift to brilliant Technicolor, but for some reason, I don’t believe this would have worked as well had it not been in black and white. There is just something about jazz musicians and black and white film that works so well. The other day I was watching a Miles Davis feature that also would not have been as impressive to look at, had it been filmed in color. Isn’t it amazing how different things look in black and white, as opposed to color?

Satchmo. I’m one of the world’s biggest Louis Armstrong fans, so is it really a surprise that I was a fan of him being in this film? Hell, he’s one of the reasons I even added this to my list. If you’re knowledgable of Louis’ film career, then you know most of the time he plays himself or a character that is a band leader, and these roles are usually quick cameos. With the exception of The Five Pennies, I believe this is the only time he’s actually had the opportunity to flex his acting chops. However, let’s face the facts, the reason you put Pops in a movie is to hear him play, even if this is at the tail end of his career, at a point when he was doing less and less playing. I love this character of Sweet Daddy. It allows Armstrong to be the older musician who has paid his dues and the performance of “Back O’ Town Blues” is a real treat!

What didn’t I like?

Learn to play. Before I go on this long rant, keep in mind that I am a trumpet player, so I’m a tad bit biased. That being said, it is obvious that Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra, Jr., for that matter aren’t playing their horns. There is a point where the music is a sustained note and Davis is pushing buttons down in rapid succession. Even if you’re not a trumpet player, you can tell something is off about that! Here’s what makes matters worse, they have one of the greatest trumpet player to ever pick up the horn as part of the cast. Surely they could have picked his brain and had him give Davis and Sinatra some tips, or at least a focal point as to what to look like when you’re playing. I am taken back to The Mambo Kings for a second. Antonio Banderas isn’t playing his horn in that film (there is some debate about this), but he at least looks like he is trying. For me, Davis was just winging it and no one did anything about it. Sinatra had a bit more of a grasp on the concepts, but we don’t see him playing that often.

Woman, please. From the moment we are first introduced to Cicely Tyson’s character, I could tell that she wasn’t going to be one that I would care for. As the film progresses and she nags Davis’ character to the point that she changes who he is, and as a result when Sinatra’s character is getting the crap beat out of him, all Davis does is stand there as an onlooker, afraid to do anything. She does however, realize the error of her ways, but I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like had Lola Falana’s character been the object of Davis’ affection.

Life story. From what I can deduce, those that resort to alcoholism have some kind of personal demons they are facing. For Davis’ character, he had a car accident that killed his wife and kids and blinded his best friend, who is/was also his piano player. Quite the tragic tale, huh? Thing is, we don’t get the full story until nearly half way through, if not past that point. Why so long to give us the details of what happened? Given the way the film opens, that would have been the perfect time to give the audience the lowdown as to what happened and set up the misery that Davis is going through, and explain his walking off stage.

Initially, I was only going to watch A Man Called Adam for Louis Armstrong and the music, but this film surprised me and ended up being a really entertaining film. Strong performances by Davis and the rest of the case really sell what could have been a mediocre, at best, film. Do I recommend this film? Yes, I would say it is a good drama with great music that most can enjoy. Is it for everyone? No, but can you honestly tell me a film that is? Give this one a shot sometime. You may be surprised how much you enjoy it!

4 out of 5 stars

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2 Responses to “A Man Called Adam”

  1. Mystery Man Says:

    Reblogged this on Mr Movie Fiend's Movie Blog.

  2. […] it wasn’t what it was advertised to be. I was expecting something more along the lines of A Man Called Adam. Instead, I get a non-gangster film-noire. At any rate, I can say that this wasn’t a total […]

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