Frank Sinatra does most of the talking in Alex Gibney’s four-hour documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, which premieres April 5 and 6 on HBO. As you would expect, it’s straightforward and apology-free, the more tempered comments coming from family, friends, cohorts and talking heads, all of whom are heard but never seen. Visually, this is all-Sinatra, all the time.
Foremost a film for fans of his music — or even those who have not heard much more than “Theme from New York, New York” and “Strangers in the Night” — All or Nothing at All is dominated by Sinatra’s life as a vocalist. It digs into the whys and hows of song selection, arrangements and recording techniques, the elevating of songwriting talents such as Sammy Cahn, his distaste for rock ‘n’ roll, and the origin of his own label, Reprise Records, and surrounds those facts with the wilder side of his life.
Gibney uses a 1971 concert at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, billed at the time as his final show ever, as the framework for the documentary. At that show, a gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, Sinatra chose 11 songs that best told his story — “All or Nothing at All,” “Nancy With the Laughing Face,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Angel Eyes” and “My Way” — and Gibney uses performances from that night as chapter headings.
The director, who wowed HBO audiences over the last week with his Scientology documentary Going Clear, has pulled off a Herculean task of filling this estate-approved film with Sinatra providing the narrative, moving cradle to grave with the singer’s interview answers, a chat at Yale and comments pulled from between-song banter. The film is timed to the centennial of Sinatra’s birth on Dec. 12, 1915.
The stories are by-and-large familiar: the win on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio show, the Paramount Theater, singing in the bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey before going solo, JFK, the Rat Pack, the starlets, the mob connection, the strings of hit records in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and the slumps, both personal and professional, that always seemed to arrive hand in hand.
Gibney lays out Sinatra’s life as the singer lived it, jostling the timeline only in the late 1950s to give a better thematic presentation.
When Gibney takes liberties with the timeline, specifically in the late ’50s, he generates dramatic heat. Social, political, romantic and musical forces swirl around Sinatra, and if he’s not in the eye of the storm it’s only because winds have already pushed him off-course. The romances with Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall crumble, the government targets him as a communist, he fights racism on multiple fronts, and his connections with mob bosses and John Kennedy wind up in a tangled mess. And Hollywood, which honored him with an Oscar in 1954, sees him as a star and casts him in picture after picture.
The L.A. concert footage gives All or Nothing at All a fair amount of heart and energy; it’s the Sinatra many people younger than the bobbysoxer generation remember. He’s 55 at that time, a powerful presence as a singer so in command of the stage it seems illogical he would walk away from that career. His retirement was, of course, short-lived — two years later he was playing Madison Square Garden in the round — but Gibney convincingly presents Sinatra as a man who had had enough of public attention, poor record sales and turncoat friends that he just wanted to be left alone.
Yet as all of this unfolds, there’s a dryness to the delivery of the information. Here’s Ol’ Blue Eyes, described as charming, dismissive, tyrannical, generous and restless by one observer and yet tales of his behavior often sound like they’re being read from a script. Sinatra’s children — they are a constant presence throughout the four hours — and the ex-wives share stories, too, with little emotion in the re-telling; Harry Belafonte is about the only consistently animated voice in the film beyond Frank in his angry moments.
Working to make it clear how out of sorts Sinatra felt in the mid- to late-‘60s, whether through his unlikely romance with Mia Farrow or an embarrassing 1968 TV appearance with the 5th Dimension, he skips over a significant fact: Sinatra registered two of his three No. 1s in 1966 and ’67: “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid.” He won Grammys for “It Was a Very Good Year,” the Strangers in the Night album and the single, though Gibney focuses on Sinatra losing his connections to power and feeling lost within musical culture. Clearly, Sinatra was still connecting with an audience, though his use of a video of Sinatra working with the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, a one-album collaboration, makes it appear he was tossing spaghetti against the wall musically.
Gibney, in a move out of character with his films on James Brown and Fela Kuti, wraps the film with a love letter of sorts to the power of Sinatra the singer. He calls him a “genuine artist,” saying he “made many of us wiser about love and loneliness.” It’s a heartfelt indicator of why Gibney made this film, though its message might have worked better at the top of the film rather than the end.