Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the cutting-room floor: A Man Called Adam

Most film directors shoot far more footage than they'll ever use; the quality of the finished product is shaped via subsequent trimming and sequencing by the director and editor(s). Given that studio commercial considerations sometimes triumph over artistic preference, satisfaction can be obtained via later "director's cut" editions for home video and/or streaming release. But even those rarely use everything the director originally shot.

(Alfred Hitchcock was a notable exception. His vision of a film was so precise, that he almost never shot more than he used ... which made it impossible, during post-production, for potential "tampering hands" to mess with his cut.)

During the three years spent gathering films and TV shows that fit the parameters of this project, some were included more out of personal desire, than an adherence to my own fairly rigorous rules. When I ultimately emerged with a manuscript that was five times what my contract specified, and it remained almost three times too long after judicious editing, McFarland graciously permitted the single-book contract to be re-written as a two-volume set. But even though they tolerated a slightly higher per-book word count, I still had to trim some more text. The easiest — and least painful — solution, in order to retain the documents' integrity, was to lose some of those "marginal" entries.

They'll be resurrected here, from time to time. Think of this as an ongoing "author's cut," or a series of little bonus features. They'll also open a window to process, because these are the full-length, first-draft versions of each essay, prior to two rounds of editing. (Very few entries ran anywhere near original length, by the time of the manuscripts' final draft; I initially included a lot of production and/or plot detail — as you'll see here — that ultimately proved superfluous.)

I also get to include a lot more pictures...


Biographical dramas about abusive, mean-spirited and self-destructive jazz musicians were a cinematic cliché in early 2016, with three released within weeks of each other: Nina (Nina Simone), Miles Ahead (Miles Davis) and Born to Be Blue (Chet Baker). All share a spiritual ancestor with the independently produced A Man Called Adam, which covers much of the same overly melodramatic territory; the primary difference is that the title character played by Sammy Davis Jr. is fictitious. Since this is a fairly straight drama, with no criminal activity to speak of — although drug use is vaguely suggested at one point — its inclusion in these pages might raise a few eyebrows. [Of course, it ultimately wasn't included.]

Adam gets a pass because Jack Priestly’s occasionally arty black-and-white cinematography has neo-noir touches — if self-consciously pretentious ones — and also because, frankly, the jazz is too choice to ignore.

Benny Carter’s underscore is terrific, and the soundtrack also boasts stand-out vocal performances by Louis Armstrong and Mel Tormé (the latter playing himself). Music aside, the film has dated badly; the Lester Pine/Tina Rome script is atrociously contrived and exaggerated, and director Leo Penn tolerates far too much over-acting by the entire cast. He also favors absurdly tight close-ups: a lazy technique borrowed from his more frequent work on dozens of TV shows. (Indeed, Penn directed only one other big-screen feature during his 32-year career.)

The story finds talented but embittered horn player Adam Johnson (Davis) in the midst of a long-gestating career decline; he’s forever angry and drunk, prone to demeaning friends, colleagues and even strangers. Despite this, he has no shortage of women willing to overlook the vicious temper in order to bask in the glow of his musical genius. The newest moth attracted to his flame is soft-spoken Civil Rights worker Claudia Ferguson (a radiant Cicely Tyson, in her first notable big-screen role), granddaughter of veteran blues and Dixieland jazz star Willie Ferguson (Armstrong). Adam also is coaching Vincent (Frank Sinatra Jr., in his big-screen debut), a young trumpet player who idolizes his mentor.

Adam is his own worst enemy, alienating even the members of his own quintet (which includes Kai Winding on trombone). As if all this weren’t drama enough, Adam also suffers from ongoing but unspecified ill health; although the alcoholism is obvious, we can’t help wondering if drug abuse is a contributing factor. (The script remains vague about such things.) The subsequent narrative arcs are familiar and predictable: Claudia works hard to re-build Adam’s more positive qualities; he repeatedly backslides, then hits bottom and resurrects himself; then he succumbs — oh, the irony! — to whatever “mysterious ailment” has made him cough during the entire film.

The clever animated opening credits — definitely a highlight — unspool to a spirited instrumental reading of the film’s title theme, “All That Jazz” (a Carter/Al Stillman collaboration not to be confused with the identically titled John Kander/Fred Ebb tune from Chicago). The credits segue to a typical club performance by Adam and his combo — Nat Adderly “ghosting” the trumpet solos — with Davis delivering a soulful vocal on a bluesy lament titled “I Want to Be Wanted.” Since he and various colleagues spend considerable time in a variety of jazz clubs, as this film proceeds, it’s a perfect excuse for the score’s lengthy combo and vocal performances. 

Armstrong has a lot of fun with his sassy vocal on “Back of Town Blues,” while Tormé delivers an engaging reading of “All That Jazz” during a party hosted by Downbeat Magazine. Carter’s instrumental underscore also is quite effective, particularly during a somber bass, piano and horn lament that augments the melancholy atmosphere of a montage that finds a distraught Adam wandering dirty, late-night city streets (appropriately titled “Night Walk” on the Reprise Records LP). Carter’s gentle theme for Claudia is lovely: a sweet, slow anthem with a melody line shared by piano and muted trumpet. The album features all of the film’s key musical moments, including an initially vibrant reading of Cy Coleman’s “Playboy Theme,” which turns ear-shatteringly ghastly when Adam succumbs to whatever ailment has afflicted him. In the dirge-like aftermath, Tormé turns one final reading of “All That Jazz” into a musical eulogy that grieves over what was lost: “He was born to blow a horn ... and all that jazz/For that horn we mourn ... and all that jazz.”

In addition to its groovin’ score, A Man Called Adam should be celebrated as an extremely rare, mid-1960s drama that employed primarily black talent, both in front of and behind the camera, to confront issues of Civil Rights and racism (however clumsily). The project was based loosely on Miles Davis’ life and career, and originally intended as a vehicle for Nat King Cole; co-producer Ike Jones, one of Cole’s longtime associates, is believed to be the first black producer of a mainstream U.S. film.

All concerned therefore get points for good intentions, but it’s still better to ignore the film in favor of the tasty soundtrack album: easy to do, thanks to the 2007 digital re-issue by Film Score Monthly’s Retrograde Records, which includes soundtrack historian Jon Burlingame’s enlightening essay. 

In addition to Adderly and Winding, the film and soundtrack musicians included Buster Bailey (clarinet); Bill Berry (ghosting Frank Sinatra Jr.’s trumpet work); Aaron Bell and Pops Foster (acoustic double bass); Jimmy Cleveland and Tyree Glenn (trombone); Seldon Powell (tenor sax); Billy Kyle and Junior Mance (piano); and Danny Barcelona, Jo Jones and Herbie Lovelle (drums).


1. David Meeker, Jazz on the Screen (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2009), 781-782.

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