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It seems like only a few weeks ago that documentarian Alex Gibney was taking down Scientology. (Oh right, it was.) What better way to follow up than with a four-hour paean to Ol’ Blue Eyes?
The multi-hyphenate pop-cultural icon known as Frank Sinatra would have been 100 this year (he died in 1998), so the time is right for a look back at his varied career. Gibney’s doc, spread over two nights, mostly concentrates on the singer-actor-activist’s first 60 years, using his 1971 “Retirement Concert” (a premature farewell performance, as it turned out) as the prism through which to view his very colorful life.
The only onscreen archive footage we see is of Sinatra himself, discussing his career and plying his trade. Other interviewees (ex-wife Nancy, children Frank and Nancy Jr., and former girlfriends, Lauren Bacall and Mia Farrow, among them) are heard occasionally in Gibney-recorded audio excerpts that are layered over numerous still images from the crooner’s archive. But Sinatra is the star attraction, and the film takes a similar tack to HBO’s recent Six by Sondheim (about composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim) in letting the man himself, via the years-spanning interviews he gave, tell his own story.
Sad to say there was a virtuosity to Six by Sondheim that eludes Gibney. There, the selection of footage had a rhythm and lyricism to it that complemented the subject’s idiosyncrasies and provided insight into his methods. The aesthetic acted as a profound conduit into that most mysterious of things—an artist’s personal process. Sinatra, by comparison, is a primarily straightforward birth to not-quite-death story in which the footage does little more than supplement what is already superficially apparent. The film never gets much beyond Sinatra the towering icon whether it’s dealing with his numerous career peaks or the just as prevalent valleys. He’s a Teflon saint in this telling, whether the film is examining for example, his progressive stance on race or his regressive treatment of women. And whenever Gibney does try to shake things up the results are embarrassing, as in a climactic montage set to Sinatra’s latter-day hit “New York, New York” that strains for a soaring emotional crescendo (complete with footage of responders to 9/11) that the film has in no way earned.
The facts of Sinatra’s life are still compelling enough that the movie is rarely dull. Pretty much every touchstone is here: The early nightclub and Manhattan theater years, when Hoboken-born Frankie made the gals literally swoon. The purported mob connections that culminated in ballot stuffing for the Kennedy campaign. The tempestuous (to put it mildly) relationship with Ava Gardner, and the Capitol Records renaissance that produced such albums as In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly with Me. And plenty, plenty of Sinatra and his Rat Pack, which included Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., ruling over Las Vegas (we get tantalizing glimpses of one of their rambunctious stage shows).
The most entertaining section deals with a duet sung by Sinatra and Elvis Presley on a television variety hour, something of a public détente since Sinatra was on record with his near-old fogeyish dislike of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a delight to see a pair of very different musical icons find common ground through a medley of their signature songs. And the most moving sequence details the strange particulars of the kidnapping of Sinatra’s then 19-year-old son in late 1963, right on the heels of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination — two successive low blows that had a profound impact on this great artist’s outlook on life. The deep-rooted emotion underlying his personal sea change comes through, even with Gibney’s frustratingly cursory approach.
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