In anticipation of Frank Sinatra’s centenary, Niall Anderson watches Alex Gibney’s four-hour documentary on the singer’s life and work
Like Humphrey Bogart, his sometime drinking partner, Frank Sinatra is so indelible a figure in the American cultural landscape that the artifice he created has come to be taken for the artist. In the nearly twenty years since Sinatra’s death, history has softened some of his rougher edges. We no longer see the spiteful reactionary of his latter days (all toupèed temper and geriatric disgust). Instead, we see a man who is relaxed and yet impeccably presented; a striver who knows heartbreak but is unbowed by it; a guy who knows right from wrong, but who isn’t afraid to break the rules if it means people have a good time.
In other words, we see Sinatra at his post-war peak: the years of his best records, best films, and greatest commercial successes. This flattened historical perspective does Sinatra a number of favours. (For one thing, it makes his lengthy and intimate connections to the Mob just another aspect of his blue-collar practicality.) But one thing it doesn’t do is take you back to the work, without which all the practicality in the world is worth very little.
Alex Gibney’s Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All seems to want to correct this picture. It uses as its framing device the set-list of Sinatra’s ‘retirement’ concert of 1971, in which Sinatra moved chronologically through his career in an attempt to sum up his life and styles. Every song from the set-list becomes a chapter in Gibney’s movie – starting with Sinatra’s first recording, ‘All Or Nothing At All’, and ending, inevitably, with ‘My Way’ – allowing Gibney to briskly alternate between the life and the work.
This is a pretty sturdy structure on which to build a life-to-death biographical film, or at least it would be if Sinatra’s life hadn’t been so insistently capricious. Gibney is sensible enough to break with his framing device when Sinatra’s life gets too complicated to fit within it, but as the film goes on, the set-list set-up begins to feel like a series of cheery postcards from vacations that were anything but happy.
The early years get the best of the set-list approach, largely because this portion of the film has only one story to tell: that of Sinatra’s rise from relative poverty in New Jersey to nationwide stardom. Sinatra himself sounds vaguely amazed at his own nerve in defying, first, his parents and secondly common sense by taking a series of leaps into the unknown to further his career, all of which paid off spectacularly. It didn’t make sense for him to ditch a lucrative career fronting the Tommy Dorsey Band, except in retrospect, when it suddenly looked like a masterstroke.
Sinatra would run his entire career like this, with intuition or boredom driving him on to the next project. The intuitive Sinatra is an attractive figure. His famous racial egalitarianism, to take one example, stemmed from a reflexive sense that the little guy should be able to get ahead in America, regardless of the colour of his skin. The bored Sinatra, however, was a horror: gluttonous, vengeful, violent, and with a bitterly long memory for even minor slights. As the songs says: all or nothing at all.
Broadly speaking, the older Sinatra got the worse he behaved. The problem Gibney’s film has is that there’s a lot more documentary evidence of Sinatra behaving badly than there is of him behaving well. Various friendly voices are recruited to reassure us that Sinatra didn’t go entirely bad (Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte are particularly eloquent), but the last hour of the film is basically a catalogue of boorishness leavened with mentions of how much Sinatra raised for charity.
Faced with a lot of unedifying material, Gibney at least tries to make the latter-day Sinatra explicable. Having campaigned for Democratic presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy, Sinatra suddenly appears at the inauguration of Republican Richard Nixon. Nancy Sinatra explains that this is because he liked the vice president, Spiro T. Agnew. Belafonte meanwhile explains it as an elaborate revenge on the Kennedys, who were concerned enough about Sinatra’s mafia links to effectively ban him from seeing JFK. In this telling, Sinatra was miffed enough about being ostracised from the White House that he’d go onto support every Republican presidential candidate for the next thirty years.
If neither version of the story rings entirely true, this is partly because Gibney’s film is structured as an oral history, in which contradictory accounts of the same incident are left hanging in the air for the viewer to pick their favourite. It would be unfair to say that Gibney whitewashes Sinatra (Tom Kuntz, author of The Sinatra Files, is very clear in voiceover on the extent of Sinatra’s Mob connections), but where the film has to nudge the viewer towards a particular interpretation it tends towards the sunnier one. Sinatra was hotheaded, rather than a thug. He could hardly avoid the Mob, being in showbusiness, so instead he made the best of it. And, hey, he did a lot for charity.
While all this is going on, the viewer may be wondering when the music will get a proper look in. True, the film hardly stints on playing the hits, but they turn up here as a series of cute narrative stings (Nancy Sinatra’s birth is parsed to the strains of ‘Nancy With The Laughing Face’) rather than as the core of the man’s work. Great claims are made for his records – particularly the extraordinary run of LPs he released on Capitol in the 50s – but somehow these claims are never quite substantiated by the soundtrack. The viewer gets told that Sinatra did a lot of things that other singers didn’t do. He was one of the first to work on microphone technique. He sang from the middle of the orchestra, live, rather than from an isolated booth after the orchestra was gone. He paid strict attention to the arrangements. He designed his albums as unified statements on a theme. He did it his way, in other words. But what remains obscure is what his way actually added up to.
Sinatra’s earliest recordings show him working very much in the mould of Bing Crosby. He sings ballads, to the beat, in a neutral and neutered tone. At some point, he dismantled his entire technique, began to sing in his own accent and developed a conversational style that swung wildly around the beat, or, in his more experimental orchestral work with Gordon Jenkins, seemed at pains to avoid stressing a beat at all. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was a revolution in vocal recording and delivery, but you get no sense of that from Gibney’s film.
This perhaps says something about the kind of records that Sinatra made, and, in particular, the cultural sunset of swing and big band music. Sinatra’s swing records exist as excellent things in themselves, but their prevailing style is almost completely absent from contemporary culture, except as pastiche. This maybe explains why the bulk of Sinatra criticism now focuses on his ballad albums – the hungover likes of In The Wee Small Hours, Only The Lonely and Where Are You? These albums at least have some cultural presence, if only in the mutant orchestral excess of Scott Walker or Ute Lemper.
Put plainly, if you don’t already care about Frank Sinatra, All Or Nothing At All is not going to convert you; and if you do care, it can only frustrate you. But in spending four hours on Sinatra, some magic does leak through – in particular an extraordinary high-wire version of Ol’ Man River, where Sinatra somehow preserves both the diction and his dignity, producing a performance to stand alongside that of Paul Robeson. Remember Sinatra this way, or better still, start here:
Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All is available from Eagle Rock studios from today.