In 1971, at age 55, Frank Sinatra announced his retirement from show business, though of course he returned two years later and then barely quit till his death. The aborted retirement, however, neatly marks the close of Sinatra’s extraordinary Act II: Following his twin 1953 comebacks, in From Here to Eternity , and on his epoch-making first Capitol album, Swing Easy , Sinatra became the first modern superstar. For the next fifteen years, he made every year at the very least one album and one film—-once, as many as five films, and once, seven albums. Then in 1969, three albums but no film; 1970, one disastrous movie (Dirty Dingus Magee), and one often affecting but split-focused album (Sinatra and Company). Within a year, Sinatra announces retirement, being no fool: He certainly knew by then that an exit must precede a new entrance, that there’s a curtain after every act. For Sinatra fans (and who isn’t?), there’s a DVD available of a rare 1970 concert, right around the release of that Sinatra and Company album—FRANK SINATRA IN CONCERT AT ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL—and it is pure gold in assaying just exactly how much Sinatra knew and where he was as both performer and person as his superstar period came to an end.
Well, he knew just about everything as a singer, and his voice was still there, though he seems personally not really on solid ground—-having divorced by then his second and third wives (Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow), and dating again—-though his torch for Gardner never went out. It’s a fascinating, sometimes moving hour: seeing him relate silently to a few unseen friends of both sexes, make kidding but revealing remarks between songs—-and the singing! Jesus, he was good.
Grace Kelly (in a slightly starchy appearance as Her Supreme Highness) introduces him with a couple of charming Sinatra stories from her own movie-making days. Then Frank comes out, alternating schtick from Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis (he himself wasn’t naturally funny) when he isn’t singing uniquely, archetypally Sinatra, the first three songs all up-tempo signature numbers: “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Pennies From Heaven” and Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
He seems to be in an extremely good mood, and has a fine time with these three but doesn’t truly get serious about moving inside the song until he does George Harrison’s “Something,” Sinatra’s potent way of showing that a superb performer can make even foreign material his own. He breaks it up again with another of his brassy standards, Rodgers’ and Hart’s “The Lady is A Tramp,” just before settling into a trio of saloon songs—-remember, Sinatra always called himself a “saloon singer”—-and that, of course, becomes the bleeding heart of the show.
Suddenly there’s an extraordinary focus on the inner specifics of the particular loser-at-love he is inhabiting. He begins with Hoagy Carmichael’s complicated classic, “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” which naturally is a most ironic title because, especially in Sinatra’s deeply vulnerable performance, the guy doesn’t get along without her very well at all—-he’s only trying to convince himself with no success and little hope. Sinatra does the song slower than anyone, and definitively: The first time he sings the words “very well,” the ache is as palpable as a spear going through you.
He follows with the more contemporary, and equally sad Jimmy Webb song, “Didn’t We”, and owns this as well. Each time he gets to the oft-repeated title-phrase, “Didn’t we, girl?” he surprises you with a different emotional nuance. Most surprising—-in the other repeated line, “Didn’t we almost make it this time?”—-is Sinatra’s intonation on “this time” in the last rendition of the whole phrase; it’s also moving as hell. Finally, that ultimate saloon song, “One for the Road,“ which Sinatra describes as “more than a song, it’s a dramatic adventure.” And that’s exactly the way he does it. In a pin-spot, with only piano accompaniment—-presented here in a single, uncut medium shot—-Sinatra enacts a “quarter-to-three” a.m. drunk coming into a closing bar for a final glass, and it’s a perfectly etched portrayal, less a song than a richly illuminated one-act play.
With three of the concert’s last four songs, Sinatra turns to his other singing passion, Italian opera, and—-to varying degrees of intensity—-gives us emotional pop arias: a new song he thought might be a hit and wasn’t (“I Will Drink the Wine”), followed by Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” (from The King and I), which he starts out resisting, eventually gives in to and then gets lost in. During the final chorus he seems so swept away that there’s a kind of surprise on his face coming out of it. After a rousing “My Kind of Town,” he concludes with his most enduring aria, “My Way,” a song he used to say he didn’t really like, but which he sings with matchless intensity and conviction.
On the DVD, with a couple of clicks, you can replay any one of the songs as often as you want. A few years ago in New York, I stopped in at Colony’s record store, which has the largest karaoke selection in the country, and they told me the biggest karaoke sellers are overwhelmingly Sinatra, Elvis, and the Beatles. So as the 21st century begins, a great many of us still wish we could sound like Frank, and no one ever will.
* * *
By the way, there’s an absolutely indispensible new biography of Sinatra being published in November by Doubleday; titled Frank: The Voice, it ends with the Oscar in his hand, marking the start of the second half of his life, which will no doubt be covered in a second volume. Written by the best-selling novelist-biographer-journalist, James Kaplan, the nearly 800-page book reads like a fast-paced novel in which you follow the hero through what feels like his entire existence on earth, and it’s just riveting and touching and entirely fascinating. Sinatra’s circuitous road to Oscar is marked by extreme highs (the bobby-soxer phenomenon) and radical lows (attempted suicides over Ava), happiness (marriage to Nancy, three children) and heartbreak (divorce, loss of Ava), and through it all his overarching dedication to the creation of the music we are still listening to, avidly. One terrific book.