Fans of Sammy Davis Jr. will have to wait for either a local film festival to show the spellbinding documentary I’ve Gotta Be Me or the eventual PBS broadcast. The latter might start as early as March on American Masters. For those fortunate to see it in a cinema format, namely the Toronto International Film Festival where it made its World Premiere, helps make this entertainer larger than life — to which he is! I was pleased to see the 2018 Victoria Film Festival list this biography in its schedule.
From his first appearance onstage as part of the Will Mastin Trio at the age of three to his time with the Rat Pack to his death in 1990, the film explores the dramatic life and times of this famed black entertainer. The racism card is played up because it deeply affected him and became part of his act. Much of this story is explained from a perspective of publicists and friends, namely David Steinberg, Todd Boyd and Kim Novak, who especially knew him. Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Jerry Lewis and Billy Crystal offer their thoughts. Wil Haygood and Burt Boyar, authors who helped co-write his autobiographies, give their take in those important events which happened in his life. From his time in the military to his affair with Novak to endorsing Nixon, this information is nothing new. The insights the new interviews offer add a new layer.
The songs featured in this video only help reinforce the point. “No More” is Martin Luther King, Jr’s favourite when he saw Davis perform in the Broadway hit, Golden Boy. Co-star Paula Wayne came out of retirement to speak in this documentary! As an added bonus, “The Candyman” is given further context to why it became this performer’s signature song throughout the ’70s.
No stone is left unturned in this work directed by Sam Pollard. Balancing between revelations of Sammy’s personal life with footage of him doing stand up, singing, acting and appearing in television interviews (including a humorous moment with Arsenio Hall) is tough. The result is not lopsided. Ultimately, this production is a highlight reel of Davis’ best performances — especially his tap dancing — from his 60 year career. The only detail missed is not including when Michael Jackson and Sammy embraced. This footage is on YouTube and to assemble a complete playlist is a gargantuan task. Editor Steven Wechsler did a great job at assembling, intermingling and condensing the footage to make watching this production a joy and a trip through memory lane.