This two-part documentary takes a detailed, intelligent look at the life of Frank Sinatra, who merged artistic greatness and enormous popularity like no one else in the 20th century. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All is told through concert footage and interviews (most recorded, in a few cases read by narrators) with Sinatra, his friends and colleagues, his paramours, and other commentators. Alex Gibney’s artfully constructed film maintains a fairly brisk pace without sacrificing depth.
Everyone knows Frank Sinatra hailed from Hoboken. His parents were Genoese immigrants, his mother a neighborhood interpreter who, the film claims, knew 55 Italian dialects. Young Francis Albert developed his lifelong drive to be the best from the hardships of the Depression. Possessing an unusual talent, he also benefited from perfect timing, as the invention of the microphone allowed for a new style of singing best exemplified in Sinatra’s youth by Bing Crosby.
The film traces Sinatra’s early career with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, the early blooming of his streak of professional independence and of the strong sense of civic responsibility that led him to help sell war bonds during World War II and perform for the USO, and later to speak out repeatedly against the racism that pervaded the entertainment scene as well as wider society. Bigotry, he said, was “the most indecent way to believe…we’re all created equal.” Commentary from Harry Belafonte testifies to this.
The story doesn’t flinch from discussing the lows as well as the highs of Sinatra’s romantic and family life, including reminiscences from both Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow as well as his first wife Nancy and all three of his children. We get fascinating glimpses into his approach to the recording studio and the stage: how deeply involved he was in the great sound of the albums he made with arranger Nelson Riddle; how carefully he selected the songs for the 1971 “farewell” concert, footage from which frames the narrative; and so on.
Some facets of his life are duly noted but tonally smoothed over, notably his mob connections and his womanizing. Still, so much is covered that it’s hard to believe so much happened in one life. The Red Scare, the Rat Pack, his closeness to the Kennedys and liberal causes, but later to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, his futile struggle with (actually against) rock and roll, his movie-star career and persona, his renaissance after his music style fell out of fashion in the 1950s, and his emergence from retirement to create one more standard in his old age.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t leave us with that number – “New York, New York” – as its very last song. So much great music is excerpted between and behind the narration, it would be a shame for viewers to “leave the theater” identifying this great master of pop and jazz with that overblown, undeniably catchy monstrosity of a tune.
The film gives us many much greater or more interesting moments, from the humble to the sublime to the painful: his first meeting on the beach with his soon-to-be-wife Nancy; singing “Old Man River” to raise money for the NAACP; being forced to disinvite his dear friend Sammy Davis Jr. from JFK’s inaugural gala because of Davis’s interracial marriage; a terribly misconceived television performance with The Fifth Dimension; splitting with Farrow when her commitment to Rosemary’s Baby kept her from shooting the film Sinatra was working on; discovering that his taciturn father had long kept clippings testifying to his son’s fame on his walls.
Made with the participation of the Frank Sinatra estate, the film certainly stresses the positive sides of his personality and career. Fortunately, those aspects were many and varied, and there’s no doubt that Sinatra, warts and all, was one of the most fascinating and talented artists to ever stride the stage.
The two discs of Sinatra: All or Nothing at All include subtitle options in English, German, Spanish, French, and Italian, and audio choices of Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS Digital Surround Sound.