Even at this late date, we have yet to take the full measure of Frank Sinatra’s art.
After all the classic recordings, all the celebrated movies, all the treasured stage shows around the globe, there’s still unfamiliar material to be studied and savored in Sinatra’s seemingly bottomless oeuvre.
The latest windfall comes in the form of “Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection,” a 7- DVD boxed set bringing together previously unreleased — as well as familiar — TV and concert performances by the man who revolutionized the way music plays on the screen (big and small).
A case can be made that Sinatra starred in the first great music video, with his charismatic performance in the film musical “Pal Joey” (1957). Sinatra looked as good as he sounded singing the score by Rodgers and Hart, his ultra-smooth moves bathed in lush, ultra-vivid nightclub lighting. Solo singers never had been filmed as lovingly as Sinatra in “Pal Joey,” and the film set a new Hollywood standard for capturing jazz-tinged song on celluloid.
Sinatra’s TV performances from roughly the same era, documented on the new boxed set, show the singer similarly expanding the way music could be presented on a smaller screen. From the somewhat grainy, black-and-white footage of his mid-‘50s TV series to the classic “A Man and His Music” specials of the ‘60s to the autumnal “Sinatra: The Man and His Music” from the ‘80s, the boxed set traces the arc of Sinatra’s TV career. It also documents a man restlessly pushing out the boundaries of what could be achieved with music on the tube.
Fully 10 previously unreleased TV performances from 1955-‘57 capture Sinatra in peak vocal form, but the singer does not rest on the quality of his pipes alone. In “Day In, Day Out,” for instance, he performs with spotlights flashing on and off all around him. The contrast between light and half-light give the performance a stunning, expressionistic fervor.
Granted, the sound on some of these tracks is slightly flawed, yet the rough-hewn quality only underscores the pioneering nature of this venture.
By the time Sinatra appears in the now-revered “A Man and His Music” specials, the vibrant colors and white-hot lighting illustrate how far TV production had come. Yet Sinatra singer still presents himself in unusual, unexpected settings, the abstract lines and multiple levels of Sinatra’s stage sets looking futuristic even today. And the vast, quasi-operatic scenes he offers in “A Man and His Music Part II” (from 1966) and “Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing” (1968) point to a singer whose broadcast employs every device imaginable — sets, lighting, decor and composition – to bring additional drama to the proceedings.
For Sinatra-files, it’s a relief to have all this footage on DVD, in one package.
The set contains other rarities, as well, most notably “Sinatra in Japan: Live at the Budokan Hall, Tokyo” (1985), released for the first time in the United States. The mythology that has accrued around this performance proves mostly justified, with Sinatra late in life putting on one of the more pugilistic performances in a career filled with them.
But there may be no more striking testament to the musical revolution that Sinatra wrought than “Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank.” This 1957 Christmas special — shot in color, a rarity at the time — amounts to a passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Though Der Bingle swings more than usual, he seems nearly antiquated alongside Sinatra, even in singing holiday treacle.
From here on, it was Sinatra’s world, and the new boxed set shows that it stayed that way for decades to come.
“Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection,” from Shout! Factory, contains more than 14 hours of music and retails for $79.98. “Concert for the Americas” (1982), which is included in the set, will be released as a stand-alone DVD on Dec. 14; retail price is $19.98.