When a documentarian is making a film about one of the most recognized figures of the past century, he or she has a few approaches to avoid repeating the same biographical points. They can structure the non-fiction film around a unique moment in that person’s life, moving from a centerpiece to fill in the historical dots that made this figure so essential. Another method would be to go for breadth, covering a wide spectrum of aspects of this person’s life to tell the most comprehensive story one can.
With Sinatra: All or Nothing At All, Alex Gibney attempts to do both, aiming for specificity and sprawl, and the results do not always work. Frank Sinatra is certainly a captivating performer with a long and varied career. However, as an artist whose life and times are so well encompassed in other films and books, was a two-part HBO doc north of four hours really necessary? Gibney prefers a straightforward biography when a more insightful study on “Ol’ Blue Eyes” would have been more potent.
Gibney’s structural concept is to use the 11-song set list that Sinatra performed at a retirement concert in June 1971 as touchstones to focus on the aspects of his life related to the hit singles. For instance, his rendition of “I’ll Never Smile Again” accompanies Sinatra’s musings about World War II and his efforts to raise money for the troops. Meanwhile, Gibney cuts back to that concert footage after a section about Sinatra’s shaky marriage to Nancy, with the song “Try a Little Tenderness.” After examining the singer’s tumultuous love affair with actress Ava Gardner, Gibney shifts into “Angel Eyes.” Unfortunately, with such an eclectic biography not covered by those 11 songs, Gibney tries to fit in other pieces of the singer’s life that are unconnected to those hits, and the results are unwieldy.
The first part of the doc chronicles Sinatra’s journey from working-class Hoboken to Hollywood glamour. Growing up in a melting pot of ethnicities during the Great Depression, Sinatra recognized hardship from an early age. With dreams of becoming as big as Bing Crosby, another pop star who internalized the struggle inherent to jazz music, Sinatra began singing in local clubs. As thoughts of war lingered across the country, he soon absorbed the attention of radio listeners and began to climb the pop charts.
Sinatra’s life, especially what is chronicled in the first of the film’s two halves, is married to the conventions of many stories about pop culture sensations. He comes from squalor, quickly ascends to the top of the heap, falters to keep his popularity in a changing zeitgeist and then mounts a comeback. Despite the familiarity of this story, Sinatra’s early life is likely not as well known as his later dapper persona – the one that appears in the doc’s second half (airing on Monday). The two parts are divided between his youth – the image of a clean-shaven boy idol with coiffed hair and a bowtie – and his matured return to fame in the 1950s after a string of flops and fading stardom. Or, as one commentator analogizes, between his “Coca Cola” youth and his later years, playing to “champagne” crowds.
No topic seems to be off limits here, including brief flings with Lauren Bacall and Mia Farrow, as well as his ties to mobsters. A rumor that Sinatra may have used Mafia influence to get a role in From Here to Eternity, which gave him an Oscar and another chance at A-list stardom, is implied to have influenced a subplot at the start of The Godfather. Unfortunately, some of the stories involving Sinatra’s womanizing ways and his ties to criminal activity are not explored with much depth, feeling more like factoids – and the several headlines from gossip columns don’t help the doc’s ties to verified truth. Since much from these sections aren’t tied to the 11 songs at the concert, these extraneous sections could have been easily excised.
The most intriguing sections of Sinatra: All or Nothing At All focus on the singer’s efforts to fight bigotry and racism. A short film he starred in about trying to quell prejudice in a slum, The House I Live In, won an honorary Oscar. Meanwhile, Sinatra was one of the only mainstream white entertainers who had no problem performing for all-black crowds. (His rendition of “Ol’ Man River” at a NAACP fundraiser reportedly moved Martin Luther King, Jr. to tears.) Despite his championing of African-American musicians and performers, the film mentions as a footnote that Rat Pack member Sammy Davis, Jr. was often the butt of racially-charged jokes onstage.
The best archival material Gibney unearths are the clips of that 1971 retirement concert. During some songs, Sinatra looks beat and bloated. Other numbers show his feisty stage presence and vocal prowess. Still, for a documentary that tries to connect his singles to the events in his life that may have inspired them, there is almost no talk about Sinatra’s creative process. His smooth baritone is lovely to listen to, but with the exception of a couple moments focused on frictions with fellow bandmates, there is remarkably little about his artistic inclinations. Considering the wide variety of songwriters who penned his tunes, it is odd that Gibney chose to organize much of the doc around how Sinatra’s life directly related to his standards.
In the 244-minute documentary, Gibney largely eschews talking heads for audio excerpts from family members, close friends and culture critics. Without breaking up the story with interview clips, Sinatra: All or Nothing At All looks like a black-and-white photo album featuring some of the world’s most famous people. However, the film drags when it focuses on biographical items not connected to the 11 songs. Without covering much new ground and without a compelling focus or hook, the HBO doc is little more than a plain, padded look at an electrifying pop star.