Friday, September 18, 2015

Sinatra’s Sinatra

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All aired on HBO in April. (Photo by William Gottlieb, 1947)

For those of us who adore Frank Sinatra, Alex Gibney’s comprehensive two-part documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, which aired on HBO earlier this year, is a gift. I watched it in a kind of rapture, held by the dense, varied narrative and the amazing footage (much of it rare) and the intelligence of both the analysts and the interviewees from different stages in Sinatra’s life and career. Most of all, though, I was held by Sinatra himself, not just the singer and the personality but the chronicler of his own story. A few seasons back, an otherwise misguided Broadway revue of Stephen Sondheim’s music called Sondheim on Sondheim intercut footage of interviews with the composer-lyricist from different decades, and the results were unexpectedly moving: while he aged, his lucid and insightful glimpses into his own thoughts about his work provided a continuum for it. Relying on a number of interviews given at different phases of Sinatra’s career, Gibney does something similar, and when he adds commentary by his children, Nancy and Tina and Frank Jr. (whose vocal patterns are oddly similar to those of the comedian Paul Reiser), and the words of his wives Nancy Sinatra and Ava Gardner, read by Christine Baranski and Gina Gershon respectively, the effect is not unlike that of a bank of mirrors with planes that reach inward for as far as the eye can see.

Gibney turns out feature-length docs at a frantic rate: the Sinatra project appeared around the same time as his remarkable – and terrifying – Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, and his most recent picture, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, is in theatres now. The Man in the Machine is fascinating, but it takes rather a shaggy-dog approach to its subject; it throws out dozens of perceptions about Jobs and about the implications of his inventions, but it never finds a shape. By contrast, All or Nothing at All unspools with a graceful sweep, moving confidently through a staggering weight of material. Gibney begins with the singer’s televised 1971 farewell concert and keeps returning to it, using it as a sort of compass, moving through the slightly more than three decades of performing that preceded it the way Sinatra shaped the concert as a flashback to key musical moments in his career. But of course Gibney goes back farther, to Sinatra’s Hoboken upbringing and his relationship with his parents: his vivacious mother Dolly, who spoke all fifty-five Italian dialects, and his strict, laconic father Marty. When he dropped out of high school and, after a brief pass at a show-biz career (the radio talent-show host Major Bowes put him in a quartet called The Hoboken Four and sent them on tour, but by the time they reached Seattle Frank felt too homesick to continue) wasn’t making any money to contribute to the family, Marty threw him out of the house.

Sinatra moved to Manhattan in 1936 and got hired to perform at The Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs with a band that was picked up for a fifteen-minute radio slot. “I couldn’t sing my way out of a paper bag,” he claimed later; the most intriguing of his reflections, including this one, come from an unfiltered interview he gave at Yale in 1986. But he was powerfully influenced by Bing Crosby, the man who invented crooning (and, according to the critic Terry Teachout, one of Gibney’s many erudite and convincing sources, the first great white singer in America), and he worked hard at teaching himself the craft of popular singing. He signed up with a vocal coach – a drunk who’d been thrown out of the Met – and sang on the radio with Dinah Shore at six a.m. while still slotted in with the Rustic Cabin musicians in the evening. Eventually Harry James discovered him and took him on the road with his big band. At this point the story the documentary enters more familiar territory. Sinatra sang with Tommy Dorsey, whose resentment of the young singer grew when audiences came to see Sinatra and not the band; when his unprecedented popularity with bobbysoxers demanded that he start performing solo, Dorsey refused to let him out of his contract unless he signed away one-third of his earnings for the rest of his life. (The musicians’ union eventually released him from lifelong enslavement to Dorsey.) For a few years in the late forties he was a movie star at M-G-M, after Gene Kelly persuaded him to learn how to dance, but then Louis B. Mayer cancelled his contract. At that point he fell into a disastrous musical collaboration with arranger and band leader Mitch Miller, who straitjacketed him with mediocre songs and novelty numbers. This was the nadir of his young career, when he was drinking too much and his marriage to Nancy was foundering due to his womanizing and he couldn’t get a professional foothold.

Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, 1945. (Photo: CBS Photo Archives)

Like most Sinatra fans, I knew a lot of this information before watching the documentary, but not all of it – not, for example, the part about the fury of some servicemen during the war because he hadn’t enlisted himself and yet he made their sweethearts swoon (he was 4F because of a punctured eardrum) or the part about the right-wing columnist Lee Mortimer’s hatred of him, which was so extreme that the unscrupulous Mortimer started a rumor that he was a Mafia bagman. Gibney is particularly illuminating on Sinatra’s political life: his devotion to FDR, his activism against racial discrimination, his friendship with Jack Kennedy and his surprising shift to the right during Reagan’s first presidential campaign. Gibney offers a considered, complex, balanced analysis of this element of Sinatra’s public life. Harry Belafonte talks about the strides Sinatra made in the treatment of African-American performers (we see footage of his close friend Sammy Davis Jr. acknowledging that he wouldn’t have had a career if Sinatra hadn’t opened doors for him), though he also alludes to the way Sinatra’s crew of buddies, the Rat Pack, used Davis in their TV and nightclub routines as a kind of buffoon. Several JFK biographers chronicle the breakdown of the Sinatra-JFK relationship – Bobby Kennedy’s persuading his brother to distance himself from Sinatra once he became president because of his friendship with mobsters whose support he’d enlisted for Jack when he was campaigning. (Sinatra’s daughter Tina tells a shocking anecdote about the Kennedys’ cutting Sammy Davis from the inaugural gala because his interracial marriage made him too controversial. “You would have thought just the opposite,” she says, and you can hear the incredulousness in her voice even after all these years.) Belafonte suggests that Sinatra’s move to the right wing was a way of getting back at the Kennedys, though the more conventional argument is that it rebounded from the profound, lingering effect of JFK’s murder.

The happiest section of the documentary, of course, is the one that focuses on Sinatra’s fabled comeback in the 1950s, as a result of landing the role of Maggio in Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity – which he was sure his friend Eli Wallach was a shoe-in for, and which won Sinatra the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – and his peerless musical collaboration with the inspired arranger Nelson Riddle on a series of magnificent concept albums for Capitol. Like millions of others, I became a Sinatra aficionado through those albums, like Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Songs for Young Lovers and especially Only the Lonely (and I can probably recite all the dialogue in From Here to Eternity by heart). Bruce Springsteen speaks of “the deep blueness of Frank’s voice,” and Gibney quotes one critic who calls the crooner “the poet laureate of loneliness,” and though he eventually broke away from the label to form his own, Reprise, it was those years at Capitol that defined that style and tone – stoic yet heart-torn – and produced his most exquisite work; only a few of his later recordings, like “Summer Wind” on Strangers in the Night, ever matched up to them. He decided to retire in 1971, in Teachout’s view, because “no one stays hip forever.” He was never comfortable with rock and roll, and when he could no longer keep it off Reprise – and then even covered some of it himself, with painful results – he realized that the world of pop had moved past him. (The albums that preceded the 1971 farewell concert, A Man Alone and Watertown, were abject failures.) Gibney looks at the brief marital mismatch of Sinatra and Mia Farrow as an emblem of the tension between him and the sixties, which Farrow, a hippie waif, unmistakably represented.

The farewell concert ends with him singing the final phrase of “Angel Eyes” – “’Scuse me, while I disappear” – and then slipping into the shadows, leaving behind an empty microphone. He didn’t stay retired, as everyone knows: he came back two years later and had one of his biggest hits with Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York,” but his singing had lost its sureness (you can hear his voice quaver even in the 1971 concert), and I’ve never thought much of the audience-pandering brassiness of “New York, New York.” His fans still showed up, but in a sense the real Sinatra had already disappeared.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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