Jazz fans and hardcore cabaret connoisseurs can still enjoy their favorite musicians in clubs, but Sammy Davis Jr might be the last headliner who could lure average folks into a nightclub. You can bet he always made it worth their while. He is one of the few entertainers who found success in film, television, the recording industry, Broadway, and Las Vegas casinos. Yet, in this day and age, he strikes many as an awkward anachronism, despite his documented popularity and gutsy activism. Davis gets his due for the trailblazing social significance of his life and career in Sam Pollard’s Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
At the age of seven, Davis justified all of W.C. Fields’ warnings by up-staging the great Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President. Ever since then, he was in show business, aside from an unpleasant stint in the military. That all probably fits with the narrative you expected, but Pollard opens with Davis’s literal embrace of Pres. Nixon and his 1972 re-election campaign. Davis took a lot of flak for it, but he stood his ground and largely won over his critics. However, during the course of the film, we come to understand how he reached that point.
In fact, Pollard does a nice job of balancing considerations of Davis as a performer, activist, patriot, and hipster icon. He forthrightly addresses JFK’s instruction to drop Davis’s performance from the inaugural ball. Conversely, Nixon also gets due credit for inviting the first African American to stay overnight in the Lincoln bedroom. That was Davis.
However, the assorted commentators do not really get the full context of their friendship. Nixon was a lifelong friend of Lionel Hampton, going back to his first congressional campaign and formed a fast friendship with Duke Ellington, after his 70th birthday appearance at the White House. Maybe Nixon really wasn’t racist—he just preferred people who were older, more conservative, and overcame mean circumstance early in life, just like himself.
It is also disappointing Pollard could not shoe-horn in consideration of Davis’s film A Man Called Adam, because it really is fascinating. Portraying a trumpet player transparently modeled on Miles Davis, SDJ mentors a young musician played by Frank Sinatra Jr and humiliates his sleazy booking agent played by fellow Rat-packer, Peter Lawford. Mel Torme plays himself—and he’s great, while Louis Armstrong depicts an analogue of himself in a heartbreakingly poignant turn.
Frankly, it is depressing how many of Davis’s contemporaries are also gone, but Pollard features talking head segments with several former associates and friends like Quincy Jones and Diahann Carroll. Without question, the most powerful memories are those of former lover Kim Novak and friend-and-mentor Jerry Lewis.
Gotta Be Me will inspire nostalgia for those who remember Davis for his Newly-Bricusse hits and campy appearances in films like the original Cannonball Run. It will also lead to greater appreciation of Davis as an activist and advocate (pro-Civil Rights, anti-war, pro-Nixon). He was complicated, as well as multi-talented. Highly recommended, Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me screens this Sunday (1/14) at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2018 NYJFF.