It’s tempting to wonder what sort of box-office expectations the producers of this filmed stage production had, because Sammy Stops the World radiates sensibilities associated with the mid-’60s rather than sensibilities associated with the late ’70s. Did anyone really think the public was hungry for a dated musical starring an old-fashioned entertainer? In any event, Sammy Stops the World failed to restore Sammy Davis Jr. to the big-screen popularity he enjoyed in the ’60s, and has since fallen into obscurity. Seen today, it’s perhaps best appreciated as a record of Davis’ incredible stamina, though casual fans might prefer tracking down concert footage of Davis’ familiar hits. Instead of “Candy Man” and “I Gotta Be Me,” Sammy Stops the World comprises unmemorable songs by UK tunesmiths Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, of Doctor Dolittle and Willy Wonka fame. That’s because Sammy Stops the World records a performance of Davis in the 1966 Bricusse/Newley show Stop the World—I Want to Get Off. The most famous tune to emerge from the musical is “What Kind of Fool,” not to be confused with the Barry Gibb song of the same name popularized by Barbra Streisand.
Performing against a circus-themed backdrop and accompanied by a small cast of singers and dancers, Davis plays Littlechap, an everyman whose life journey forms a ham-fisted satire about modern existence. He gets married, takes a soul-sucking job to pay the bills, and sells out his principles for professional and social advancement, eventually becoming so adept at telling people what they want to hear that he becomes President of the United States. Periodically, Littlechap addresses the audience by exclaiming “Stop the world!” and uttering introspective asides. Eventually, the story resolves into a moral lesson because Littlechap rediscovers his integrity at a crucial moment.
The fashionable anti-Establishment lingo of the original play was reconfigured slightly for Davis, hence some awkward references to race relations. (The performance in this film, recorded in Long Beach, California, was part of a national tour.) As a movie experience, Sammy Stops the World is underwhelming at best, exhausting at worst. Davis works his ass off, but he also mugs shamelessly and milks emotional moments—which is to say that he offers his usual shtick. And while his leather-lunged belting is physically impressive, it’s not particularly artful. Worse, the show doesn’t properly showcase his remarkable dancing. Incidentally, mention should be made of costar Marian Mercer, who plays multiple roles, since she performs the show’s cutesy dialogue and lyrics with welcome edginess.
Sammy Stops the World: FUNKY