Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me (2017)
The film is reviewed from its screening as the opening-night film of the 2018 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
Sammy Davis, Jr. was a fantastic entertainer, one who could sing, dance, do impressions of movie stars, and play multiple instruments in a way that just mesmerized the audience. In filmmaker Sam Pollard’s brilliant film, we see Davis, Jr. from age four dancing and singing his heart out in a short film called Rufus Jones for President that he did with Ethel Waters. It’s a remarkable performance that overshadows everyone one else in the movie, including Waters. Even more impressive is that he does a number in blackface. From the film, we learn that Davis from age four was part of a singing and dancing team with his father and Will Mastin of the Will Mastin Trio. Davis, Jr. never went to school (something he was much ashamed of), touring so much that by age ten he had traveled across the country ten times. The film does an excellent job of giving us the look and feel of the ‘Chitlin Circuit, the collection of performance venues in the East and South that African American entertainers appeared in from the early 19th century through the 60s.
The film uses a plethora of cuts of performances that Davis did on film and TV shows. When I was a young boy in the 1960s, it seemed as if Sammy Davis was on TV every week. He appeared on not only the many variety shows of the 60s and 70s like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace, but Davis also was a regular on talk shows. This was back when it wasn’t unusual for a guest to be interviewed for two or three segments, Davis would not only talk about their show business career but also about life, race relations and the Vietnam War. From those talk show clips, we get to know Davis in his own words. Besides the talk show clips, we hear the audio from Davis that he recorded when he did his autobiography. Davis, Jr. in this film is his own narrator of his life story, and it makes it more personal and compelling than having someone else narrate the movie. The film contains clips all the way from his appearance in the film at age four to a TV special that celebrated Davis’s 60th year in show business. The film contains pictures from Davis’s own personal collection giving us a look into his private life.
The film is smartly made up of segments – impressionist, comedian, dancer, singer, activist, Rat Pack, segments that cover all aspects of Davis’s life and gives us details about his life and his views on the world. We get insight into Davis, a man who hid his pain so that he could give everything he had in every performance. Davis suffered extreme cruelty when he joined the Army. Having joined right after the Army had integrated a battalion, Davis constantly got beat up, ridiculed, and in one disgusting story, peed upon. However, through that pain, Davis figured out that rather than take everyone on, maybe he could make them laugh instead and begin cultivating his impressions. We learn that Davis was unique in that he mostly did impressions of white movie stars, something unheard of at the time.
The stories that Davis tells are fascinating and sometimes shocking, like the time the head of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn had a hit put out on Davis. Davis was dating Kim Novak, a white actress who was one of Columbia’s most popular stars. Worried that dating Davis would run Cohn cash cow, he threatened Davis that if he didn’t find a black woman to marry in 72 hours, Davis would be killed. Davis paid 10,000 dollars to a woman he had once dated to marry him, and Cohn called off the hit.
The thrilling parts of this film weren’t Davis’s singing (he only had a couple of hits, one being the horrible song The Candy Man) but scenes of Davis’s dancing. Davis was a master of the soft shoe and tap dancing styles. In the scenes of the film, Davis seems almost to float across the screen; his tapping is so effortless and joyful. Billy Crystal talks in the movie about how amazing Davis was with his tap dancing that he could create these complicated moves and make it look like it was nothing. Jerry Lewis, in one of his last appearances, talks extensively about his relationship with Davis, including the story of how Lewis spent seven days in Davis’s hospital room as Davis recovered from a horrific car crash.
The film doesn’t just focus on the entertainment aspect, such as Davis being in the Rat Pack with Sinatra and Dean Martin but also touches on other issues throughout his life. The near-fatal car crash that cost him his eye. The numerous affairs that ruined more than one marriage and continuously got him in trouble as he dated both black and white women. His need to buy as many clothes and jewelry as he could, to the point of there wouldn’t be anything in his bank account. Davis’s fervent support of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and his strange involvement with the reelection of Richard Nixon, something that would haunt Davis for decades, losing some of his core audience because of it. All it is covered in detail, but the film never slows down and keeps moving at a fast pace.
The film gives fans of Sammy Davis, Jr. an hour and forty minutes of heaven, letting them rediscover why they loved the performer so much. For someone who doesn’t know anything about the man, they will discover a unique talent that you can’t but smile when you see him perform with a passion and a skill that is extremely rare. Sammy Davis, Jr. was an extraordinary performer that Sammy Davis, Jr.: I Gotta Be Me perfectly captures the man, the myth and the legend that he was. My Rating: I Would Pay to See It Again
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival runs Jan. 24 – Feb. 15. For more information and tickets go to www.ajff.org
For more of Mike’s reviews and interviews click here