May 6, 2019  (Web Review)

Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me

(2019) 100 min. DVD: $24.99 ($54.99 w/PPR). PBS Video (www.teacher.shop.pbs.org). ISBN: 978-1-5317-0908-2. SDH captioned.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Filmmaker Sam Pollard’s documentary, which aired on PBS’s American Masters series, traces the extraordinary life of Sammy Davis Jr., from his debut as a 3-year-old vaudeville performer up to his death in 1990 at the relatively young age of 64. A performer of diverse talents, Davis overcame harsh obstacles ranging from a lack of education to violent racism during an Army stint, as well as the backlash for his 1960 marriage to Swedish actress May Britt (John F. Kennedy disinvited him from the 1961 presidential inauguration gala to avoid controversy from the Southern Democrats who were stalling federal civil rights legislation). Yet Davis also faced blowback from African Americans for his strained attempts to embrace the late-1960s mod culture and his support of Richard Nixon’s presidency. The film berates Davis for his broad race-related comedy during his run with Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, although self-deprecating humor was a staple of Davis’s act. Oddly, many of Davis’s career highs are absent from this presentation: his 1964 Broadway show Golden Boy is covered, but no mention is made of his 1956 Broadway debut Mr. Wonderful. Pollard also offers a clip of Davis as Sportin’ Life from the long-unavailable 1959 film of Porgy and Bess, but Davis’s memorable film work in Anna Lucasta, A Man Called Adam, and Sweet Charity, as well as his groundbreaking (if short-lived) 1966 TV variety series, are ignored. And Davis’s third wife, dancer Altovise Gore Davis, isn’t even mentioned by name. Still, Davis’s fans will appreciate the electrifying footage and emotional private photographs of the star during his remarkable odyssey, and the comments by Jerry Lewis, Quincy Jones, Kim Novak, and Billy Crystal offer greater insight into the complex personality of this entertainment legend. Extras include additional scenes. Recommended. Aud: C, P. (P. Hall)