As cool as Saul Bass’s titles are for Anatomy of a Murder, this film has them beat, thanks to an opening sequence from the Hubley Studios, renown for their jazz animation. While Benny Carter’s soundtrack for A Man Called Adam might not best Ellington’s classic score, it is at least competitive. Screening Wednesday as part of the Jazz Score series at the MoMA, Adam is an overlooked classic of jazz cinema.
Sammy Davis, Jr. plays Adam Johnson, a superstar jazz trumpeter, who despite the occasional crooning, is clearly inspired by Miles Davis. Arrogant and uncompromising, Johnson bows to no man, but is not overtly political. He is more interested in assuaging his guilt over the accident that killed his wife and child with drink, drugs, and cheap sex. Fronting a band fast losing its patience with his self-destructive behavior, he has few meaningful relationships, besides a long suffering friend played by Ossie Davis and an earnest young white student played by Frank Sinatra, Jr. Yes, Junior, and he is darn good in the role too.
Adam is a film with a plethora of interesting relationships, including the Rat-Packers, Davis, Sinatra Jr., and Peter Lawford as Johnson’s stone cold evil booking agent Manny. There is no ring-a-ding-ding in the scenes between Davis and Lawford, just the characters’ pure contempt. Cicely Tyson plays (the fictional Miles Davis) Johnson’s love interest who tries to straighten his life out, with mixed results. Fifteen years later she would marry the real Miles Davis, and is generally credited with stabilizing his then chaotic life.
Davis, Sinatra, and Lawford are all great in the film, but the best performance comes from Louis Armstrong playing Willie “Sweet Daddy” Ferguson, essentially a fictionalized version of himself. He has two dynamite musical features with Tyree Gleen and his All-Stars of the time, but he is truly touching in his dramatic scenes, playing a man who might be respected, even beloved, but who realizes time has passed him by. At a Downbeat party, after “All That Jazz,” a killing swinger from Mel Tormé (yes, the Velvet Fog), Johnson finds the shy Ferguson sitting off in a corner. The kids at the party are nice enough he tells Johnson, but it “seems like the people don’t know what to say to me.” “Maybe it’s just that they don’t know what to say to a genius,” he responds, in a scene of cinematic perfection.
There is indeed fantastic music in Adam, composed and conducted by Benny Carter. In addition to Armstrong and Tormé, the Johnson combo performs some great music as well, with Nat Adderley getting screen credit for dubbing Johnson’s cornet. Kai Winding also appears as himself, as a member of Johnson’s band, with Junior Mance fulfilling the piano duties behind the scenes.
There are scenes in Adam addressing issues of race and music that cut like a knife. Yet, the swinging music makes it all go down sweet as candy. At times swinging, at times sad, Adam is neglected cinematic jewel, containing the best film work from everyone involved. It screens tomorrow and Saturday at MoMA.