Charlton Heston is said to have once described Frank Sinatra‘s songs as “four minute movies,” and it’s an astute observation of what makes the singer’s music so timeless. Whether falling in love or nursing heartbreak, wishing on the moon or lamenting how fate has twisted the knife, Sinatra had the rare gift of sounding like a man women wanted or other men wanted to be, because he understood. But his ability to both embody an unreachable ideal and to seem relatable in his music wasn’t manufactured; Sinatra’s own wild life was the kind of material made for the movies. Indeed, while Hollywood has tried for years to mount a full fledged biopic of Sinatra, nothing has developed except for a handful of films where he is portrayed as part of an ensemble or in a story highlighting a certain moment in his life. While we’ll still have to wait for the cinematic portrait he deserves, the four-hour plus documentary “Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All” lives up to its title —this is everything you would ever want to know about the singer and then some.
Split in two halves, the film is loosely structured around the singer’s retirement concert on June 13, 1971, for which he selected an eleven song setlist that represented the breadth of his personal and professional experiences and achievements. Though it works through Sinatra’s life chronologically, the documentary circles back to the powerful live footage from the concert at appropriate moments, imbuing ‘All Or Nothing At All’ with an emotional heft that at other times is largely absent. The movie essentially tracks Sinatra in two broadly drawn spheres: as a “Coca-Cola” singer appealing to bobby-sox clad teenybopper girls, and as an older, respected artist suited for the “champagne” crowd. So if you’re looking for stories about Sinatra rolling with mobsters, rubbing shoulders with politicians and conducting torrid affairs with beautiful actresses while delivering a string of classic albums, Part 2 is where you’ll find it. Not that Part 1 isn’t without its charms.
Sinatra’s scrappy beginnings and his determination to make it is as a singer is a classic example of the American Dream. Raised in Hoboken, NJ, he dropped out of school as a teenager and committed to whatever live performance work he could get. Luckily, he was good enough that a number of show business movers and shakers recognized his potential. Sinatra’s skills as a singer increased, the gigs got bigger, and soon big band leaders like Harry James and Tommy Dorsey came calling. But they couldn’t contain the inevitable ascension: his good looks, coupled with an out of this world voice, saw his rise to stardom. His goal in which he would achieve the same success as his hero Bing Crosby seemed all but certain, yet what many forget was that for a very distinct period after his first flush with pop stardom, his career was considered finished.
Somewhere between the middle of World War II and heading into the late ’40s and early ’50s, his star began to wane, and it was the Hollywood that turned things around. His Oscar-winning performance in “From Here To Eternity” put him back in the public eye in a major way, and a new deal with Capitol Records restored his ascent. Few musicians ever get a second act like Sinatra did, and it was in the 1950s marked his imperial period. He embraced the incoming age of the album, releasing one great collection after another —Songs For Young Lovers, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, Swing Easy!, Swingin’ Lovers!, Come Fly With Me— in a terrific partnership with composer/arranger Nelson Riddle. Heading in to the ’60s, Sinatra founded Reprise Records, formed the Rat Pack and expanded his enterprise into a variety of non-music related businesses. He was Jay Z before the rapper was even in diapers. And just like Jay Z, his “retirement” didn’t last long —he was too big of an icon to stay away from his adoring public.
While the film is directed by the ever prolific Alex Gibney, the real kudos probably belong to the doc’s three editors: Sam Pollard, Ben Sozanski, and Anoosh Tertzakian. Almost completely absent contemporary talking head interviews, “Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All” is a montage of archival footage, vintage interviews, still photographs, movie and concert clips and of course Sinatra’s music, weaved together into a flowing narrative. And while there it’s never quite dull, this singular aesthetic does become wearying after four hours. It’s certainly detailed, and the filmmakers don’t sugercoat Sinatra’s significant flaws as a husband, artist and activist (it’s intriguing to hear Harry Belafonte praise Sinatra for his tremendous support of Civil Rights and also chastise him for his awful racist humor during the Rat Pack era), and yet the film moves at such a pace that there’s rarely a pause for breath or perspective. Sinatra’s greatness is assumed rather than explained, and while the film’s format allows for an exhaustive approach, it sometimes comes at the expense of providing fresh insight or genuine depth. Still, it says something about Sinatra’s life that four hours is not enough to sustain a full portrait.
The last song Sinatra chose at his 1971 retirement concert was “Angel Eyes,” and the closing lines are as such: “Pardon me but I got to run/The facts uncommonly clear/I got to find who’s now the number one/And why my angel eyes ain’t here/Excuse me while I disappear.” This choice was a canny and moving bit of showmanship by Sinatra, who exited the stage, pitched in darkness, leaving only a single spotlight on the microphone. And yet, for over six decades Sinatra was intergral to not only show business of the time but to American and global experience writ large in the 20th century, in a way that few artists then and now have ever achieved. More than anyone else, Sinatra can never truly disappear. [B]
“Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All” debuts on HBO on April 5th and 6th.