Let’s be totally Frank: Sinatra doc a swingin’ affair
For a good part of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra dominated American pop culture, first as an artist and then as an icon of what is now a bygone idea of masculinity.
As seen in the worshipful HBO documentary, “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” his fame was so unexpected and so instantaneous that it startled him, a young band singer with a wife and two children, but he was a fast learner, whether it was how to tap dance for his first film (“Anchors Aweigh”), seduce starlets or insinuate himself into the coterie of campaign aides to John F. Kennedy when he ran for president.
For the only child of Italian immigrants who settled in Hoboken, NJ, such a trajectory would have been unimaginable in 1915, the year Sinatra was born.
The film, which was directed by Alex Gibney (“Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown”), stresses the most evolved parts of the singer’s personality — using his celebrity to stamp out bigotry in Hollywood, for example — while giving him a pass when his trademark volatility left collateral damage. As Lauren Bacall, whose engagement to Sinatra was abruptly terminated when the press learned of it, tells a television interviewer, “I haven’t spoken to Frank since 1959 and that was a very long time ago.”
Frank Sinatra in a promotional photo from the 1957 film “Pal Joey.”Photo: Everett Collection
Using Sinatra’s 1971 “retirement” concert at LA’s Ahmanson Theatre as organizing principle, Gibney intersperses footage of the performance with interviews by journalists (Walter Cronkite) and commentary by his first wife, Nancy, his children, Nancy Jr., Frank Jr. and Tina, as well as co-stars (Gene Kelly), musicologists (Terry Teachout) and those who traveled in his latter-day Vegas orbit (such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Angie Dickinson).
The star-studded night at the Ahmanson is a snapshot of golden-age Hollywood. It was produced by Gregory Peck, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and Sinatra is introduced to the adoring crowd by Rosalind Russell.
Effortlessly polishing off songs such as the classic “Try a Little Tenderness” and lesser-known numbers like “Angel Eyes,” Sinatra is in very good voice, and as the film goes back in time, we hear that voice mature, from its youthful, choirboy top notes to the signature sound he found when he signed with Capitol Records and found his best arranger, Nelson Riddle.
Although some considered him imperious in the recording studios, Sinatra’s experience singing with big band leaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey taught him enough about music to know the exact touch a song needed, such as the “long crescendo” on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
His status as America’s first pop teen idol should have prepared him for how to deal with women, but Sinatra met his match in haughty Hollywood sexpots such as Ava Gardner. The singer embarrassed himself and his family by openly carrying on an affair with the North Carolina maneater, ultimately abandoning his long-term marriage to Nancy for a disastrous union.
Gardner’s comments on Sinatra’s true “gifts” are priceless: “He was good in the feathers. You don’t really listen to what people tell you when a guy’s good in the feathers.”
Gibney shows more than once that when Sinatra got burned by broads or film studios or music labels, he had a way of biding his time and bouncing back, better than ever, whether it was to win an Oscar for “From Here to Eternity” or start his own record label, Reprise.
The most painful slap in the face, though, did not come from Hollywood, but from Washington, DC. After persuading mobster Sam Giancana, at the behest of Joe Kennedy, to help JFK win the union vote in Illinois and West Virgina in the 1960 election, Sinatra was iced by the newly elected president, when his brother, Bobby, the newly appointed attorney general, took all deals to get the FBI off Giancana’s back off the table.
“Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” is a fascinating look at a man who wielded a lot power — obviously too much — but whose artistic legacy thankfully will prevail over his baser interests.
As Nancy Jr. says, he was the most powerful entertainer in the world. It would be hard to find someone of his stature today.