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New Frank Sinatra Documentary Charts His Professional Ups And Downs


This is FRESH AIR. To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra, HBO is presenting a two-night, four-hour documentary on Sunday and Monday, April 5 and 6. It's directed by Alex Gibney, who examined another musical icon in his film "Mr. Dynamite: The Rise Of James Brown" and whose film "Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief" just premiered on HBO. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says Gibney's new project, "Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All," is part concert movie, part biography and completely entertaining.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken, N.J., on December 12, 1915. Twenty years later in 1935, he made his first appearance on national radio as a member of The Hoboken Four, showcased by Major Bowes on the original "Amateur Hour." He sang with the Harry James Orchestra in 1939, moved within a year to Tommy Dorsey's band, then became a solo headliner. Stardom on several fronts followed in the '40s, but Sinatra was on the wane by the early '50s until his career rebounded with his Oscar-winning 1952 roll in "From Here To Eternity." Then came Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll, then another wave of changing times. And by 1971, Sinatra decided to retire. The man who basically invented the concept album, selecting a collection of songs reflecting a single theme, decided to go out with a farewell concert reflecting the stages of his life up to that point. He chose an 11-song set list. And the film of that concert and the songs performed form the spine of Alex Gibney's new four-hour documentary, "Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All."

Gibney intersperses the recently unearthed concert footage with vintage and newly recorded interviews - so many and so thoroughly that by the time we see and hear Sinatra singing each chosen song, we get not only the context, but the subtext. And though this musical TV biography is produced with the participation of the Frank Sinatra estate and includes new interviews with family members, it's by no means a puff piece or whitewash. Instead, it's fascinating and illuminating, and it reaches far past its central thesis to include other key performances as well.

After Sinatra had left the big bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, he gratefully accepted a gig as a solo artist, appearing as part of a larger 1942 New Year's Eve bill at the Paramount Theater in New York. He was following a tough act - Benny Goodman and his band. But as Sinatra remembers it, the audience reception made him a star.


FRANK SINATRA: I got into New York, and I look at the marquee - holy Christ. So we get ready to go, and I'm excited. And it's the opening day, and this is the moment that's going to make me or break me. This - if I'm not good in the Paramount Theater under these circumstances, I'm dead. Jesus, I was nervous.


SINATRA: Benny did a whole section of music, and then he would finish that section with "Sing, Sing, Sing." And it would get - was rowdy. It would tear the joint, you know?


SINATRA: Well, it ran about eight minutes. He finished "Sing, Sing, Sing," and he took a bow. And he went over to the microphone, and he said, now, Frank Sinatra. And they screamed like a banshee. He turned around, and he looked at the audience. And he said to nobody - what the [expletive] was that, he said.


SINATRA: (Singing) I'll walk alone. They'll ask me why, and I'll tell them, I'd rather.

BIANCULLI: In another vintage interview, Sinatra speaks boldly, almost defiantly, about his disdain for segregation even though at the time, few other celebrities dared even acknowledge the injustice.


SINATRA: I really became conscious of segregation when I got involved in the entertainment business. I found that going through parts of the United States, traveling constantly and doing one-nighters with orchestras that were comprised of Negro musicians, there were a lot of problems - and not only in the South, but in some quarters in the border states. And I began to resent it. I think it's vile. I think it's the most indecent way to believe. I think that we're all created equal. It's just - it's wrong. It's basically wrong.

BIANCULLI: The documentary charts all of Sinatra's professional ups and downs, sometimes with very smartly selected film or TV clips. A segment from a Frank Sinatra TV show, marking Elvis's return from the Army, reflects all too well the changing of the guard. They appear amiably in a duet, singing each other's songs, but it's Elvis, and only Elvis, who makes the girls in the audience scream the way a younger Frank used to. Sinatra must have hated it.


SINATRA: (Singing) Love me tender. Love me sweet. Never let me go. You have made my life complete. And I love you so.

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Those fingers in my hair, that sly come hither stare that strips my conscience bare - it's witchcraft.

SINATRA: (Singing) Love me tender. Love me true.

BIANCULLI: Gibney's film doesn't avoid anything - not Sinatra's relationships with the Kennedys or the Mafia and not his often-troubled relationships with his own children and his often very quotable ex-wives. Ava Gardner refers to Sinatra as being good in the feathers while Mia Farrow, who married Sinatra when she was 21 and he was 50, remembers what it was like dating him.


MIA FARROW: In LA, there was the older crowd - you know, Rosalind Russell. And it was Claudette Colbert, and it was very respected members of the LA artistic community. In Las Vegas, these people who would show up - I didn't know them from anywhere else. And they came, and they called women broads. They only related to each other, the men. They told jokes. And they drank, and they gambled. And I did meet Mafia people. If the evening went on late enough, he might just say, let's go to London. And he would call his pilot, and next thing, we'd be in an airplane. I learned to bring my passport to dinner.


SINATRA: (Singing) Ring-a-ding ding.

BIANCULLI: By the end of the documentary and the end of Sinatra's 1971 retirement concert, the weight of a lifetime is carried in the songs Frank Sinatra sings. His retirement lasted only a couple of years, but Sinatra meant it at the time. You can hear his depth of emotion in every song, and thanks to this excellent documentary, you won't soon forget it.


SINATRA: (Singing) I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway. And more, much more than this, I did it my way. For what is a man...

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. The HBO documentary "Sinatra: All Or Nothing At All" airs Sunday and Monday. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new anthology of Latin music. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.