Friday 21 October 2016

Exhaustive epic plays the story of Frank Sinatra

DOCUMENTARY maker Alex Gibney isn’t one for resting on his laurels.

Hot on the heels of Going Clear, his scintillating takedown of the Church of Scientology, which I’ll be writing about when it finally appears on Sky Atlantic next month, comes Sinatra: All or Nothing At All.

That title, plucked from one of OI’ Blue Eyes’s earliest hits, really means what it says. This is a mammoth undertaking, four hours long and featuring a staggering amount of archive material that must have taken an age to track down and assemble.

For reasons known only to itself, BBC4 has decided to split it into four hour-long episodes, rather than the brace of two-hour instalments that went out on HBO on consecutive evenings earlier in the year.

Frankly (no pun intended), it’s frustrating, because whether or not you’re a Sinatra fan, this is the kind of lush, absorbing film you just want to sink into uninterrupted.

There have been any number of books, most famously Kitty Kelly’s notorious unauthorised biography His Way, documentaries and even a HBO film, called The Rat Pack, about Sinatra. None of them, however, was produced with his cooperation.

He was notoriously reluctant to open up about his inner life (the closest he came to an autobiography was approving the tepid 1992 miniseries Sinatra, which spent a lot of time on his tempestuous love affair with movie star Ava Gardner but largely skated over his alleged connections with the Mafia), yet was known by those closest to him to be a more contemplative man than the brash, frequently obnoxious alpha-male image he projected in his middle and later years suggested.



Gibney calls him “the poet laureate of loneliness. His songs were haunted by it. For all his fame, he loved solitude.” This is one of the few occasions on which the filmmaker allows his own opinion to intrude.

The rest of the time it’s Sinatra’s face and voice that fills the screen: in photographs, home movies, television and radio interviews, and cherished performance footage (it’s amusing to be reminded that the phenomenon of teenage girls screaming and fainting in the aisles didn’t begin with The Beatles, but with the skinny, bow-tied Sinatra).

Talking heads – including Sinatra’s daughter Nancy and son Frank Jr, as well as a wealth of people who worked with him – are used sparingly and limited to voice contributions.

Gibney’s film is an approved product, made with the blessing and cooperation of the late singer’s estate. But there’s nothing here so far to suggest this is going to be blinkered hagiography.

While the first episode was a straightforward account of Sinatra’s meteoric rise from impoverished Hoboken, New Jersey to the toast of New York, in those days the Land of Oz for an aspiring young pop star, it didn’t shy away from the incident that left him, in the eyes of his detractors, with a whiff of cordite that would only grow more pungent as time went on.

When Sinatra wanted to split from bandleader Tommy Dorsey, who’d grown jealous of the singer’s fame, yet knew how valuable an asset he was, Dorsey agreed only on condition that Sinatra sign over one-third of all future earnings to him. Sinatra consented, but soon wriggled out of the deal.

Rumour had it a gangland figure leaned on Dorsey, but Sinatra insisted the secretary of the American Federation of Recording Artists was responsible.

How later, more serious whisperings are handled will be a true test of Gibney’s film.

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