It’s a little unsettling to start up a Blu-ray and be presented with a warning that the film may contain “historical attitudes”. One expects to see things that will offend or horrify and, admittedly, there is a little of that. It’s tempting to dismiss older films and their outdated attitudes, or to be unforgiving of those attitudes, but these warnings are important. They acknowledge that these films are problematic, that there are issues with them, but that they are still important and deserve to be seen.
A Man Called Adam is certainly this type of film. An unusual picture even now, it boasts a primarily black cast, with clear influences from the British “kitchen-sink” movement of the early 1960s. While there are elements that place A Man Called Adam in the same box as films such as Walk The Line or A Star Is Born, the black and white photography and the raw emotion on screen brings it firmly back down to earth. Its scope is small and play-like and takes its time to allow the songs played to dominate a large amount of the runtime, building mood and atmosphere in between the more emotional scenes. This adds a gritty realism that more modern films don’t have.
There are steps taken to address themes that were rarely looked at in mainstream cinema at the time. Racism and police discrimination are shown, and there is mention of the movements to end the racial segregation happening in the South.
Sammy Davis Jr. stars as Adam Johnson, a talented trumpeter and singer who is struggling to come to terms with the death of his wife and child in a car accident ten years earlier. He takes refuge in a bottle, and has regular outbursts and arguments with both his bandmates and his audience. He’s aggressive and thoroughly unlikeable, with Davis Jr. turning in a remarkably selfless performance that manifests all these things with honesty. His apartment has been leased to another musician, Willie Ferguson (Louis Armstrong) and a disagreement with him brings to his door Claudia Ferguson (Cicely Tyson), Willie’s granddaughter, a Black activist who has spent time in prison after a sit in.
Adam takes a liking to Claudia, and his pursuit of her is one of the more problematic elements of the film. He is brash and abusive, he assaults her and kisses her against her will, and ultimately it doesn’t seem so much like she falls in love with him as gives up. A Man Called Adam follows the usual pattern, Claudia believes she can change him and bring him back from the brink. Whether she will be able to is ultimately the main plot thread of the film.
The new restored presentation looks incredible, the black and white photography is crisp and clean. There is sharpness that hides the age of the film and the close ups of faces allow you to see every line and small expression. The sound too, important for a film of this nature, is well balanced and warm, even the trumpet sounds never descend into the harsh or brash sounds we may sometimes hear. This is a film about Jazz, but it’s accessible to even a casual fan of the genre. It’s audibly impressive but accessible and enjoyable.
The bonus features are modest but worthy of a look, with a commentary by film historian and critic Sergio Mims, and Jazz Expert Jumoké Fashola examining the film in an interview. These features act to add context and background to the film and make it a compelling experience.
Ultimately, A Man Called Adam is a film about Jazz, racism, trauma, and alcoholism. Those subjects make it worth a look, regardless of the outdated attitudes on screen. It comfortably fills its runtime, never drags or is boring, and the snapshot it provides of a life most of us can only imagine is fascinating.
A Man Called Adam is released on Blu-ray from Studio Canal on August 16th.