A Meat-and-Potatoes Telling of a Legendary Entertainer’s Life
Title: Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1hr & 40mins
*** (out of ****)
The details matter above all else in Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, an illuminating exploration of the eponymous entertainer. Sammy Davis Jr. lived quite the life, and director Sam Pollard, culling a lot of archival footage and drawing from various celebrity and historical interviews, captures it in an appealingly traditional way. Pollard and screenwriter Laurence Maslon divide the film’s information into sections, revealing the different stages of Davis’ life gradually and painting a portrait of both the entertainer and the complicated man. It might not have any pretense beyond this approach, but that is part of why it works.
Most prominently, of course, Davis was an entertainer almost from the beginning of his life. He was winning competitions onstage at the age of three, appearing in a renowned short film at the age of six, and unintentionally avoiding a formal education in his teen years (a fact that he would later resent about his upbringing) for a budding life in show business. As an adult, he would become synonymous with the Las Vegas scene when he joined the performer troupe “the Rat Pack” alongside Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. As a black man in the entertainment business, he was more often the butt of a joke than the face of it.
He took such things in stride but, at the same time, wanted to make strides for the betterment of the African-American’s plight in the country, which was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement while he was at the height of his career. He did break ground, too, being the first black performer to kiss a white actress onstage (during Arthur Penn’s production of The Golden Boy) and the first to champion inclusivity by virtue of his very inclusion in the Rat Pack. Politically, he was more prone to controversy, such as when he embraced Richard Nixon (and, by default, the man’s Presidency) in an infamous photo that would haunt him or when he seemed to empathize with the decision to enter the Vietnam War.
Pollard invites an amazing array of historians, celebrities (including Billy Crystal, who admired Davis’ late-life conversion to Judaism and considered the man an uncle-by-proxy), colleagues (including the late Jerry Lewis, whose influence upon and friendship with Davis was legend), and political figures to wax nostalgic about the man’s many accomplishments, never forgetting the troubling patches, too, such as his lack of commitment in marriage to Swedish actress Mai Britt or a horrific car accident in which he lost an eye. Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me doesn’t consider its job to dig beneath the surface. It is, unapologetically, an introduction to the man and a book report of sorts on his life. As such, it’s a concise and informative package.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)