[9 May 2008]
It’s almost hard to believe that Francis Albert Sinatra passed away a decade ago. I say “almost” because achieving genuine suspension of disbelief will become progressively more improbable with the approach of the mid-May anniversary of the Chairman of the Board’s exit from the stage which he helped to create. DVD releases, TCM movie specials, and even a postage stamp: a thundering commemorative salvo is in the offing.
The inherent danger of such remembrance is that the sum of the celebrated subject’s parts as it is popularly viewed dilutes our appreciation for the core of that subject’s importance. Elvis Presley, for instance, has become little more than a gaudy caricature in the popular imagination, his zeitgeist-shifting talents and impressive body of work smothered by persistent visions of twisting hips, glinting rhinestones, and ignominious ends on toilets. Could a similar treatment await Ol’ Blue Eyes, as we contemplate ten years without him?
Though there’s ample available fodder with which to construct a Sinatran archetype, he’s managed to avoid the treatment. Multiple marriages, Mob ties, playfully homosocial Vegas excess, duets with a leather-clad Bono; it’s the stuff of a thousand Johnny Carson monologue jokes, but none of it has really stuck. Sinatra’s is a legacy that endures and expands, but does not engulf. He is always exactly as big as his legend, and his legend is exactly as big as him. With this in mind, the release of the Sinatra at the Movies compilation is most canny and fitting. It’s a symbolically cross-commemorative collection that spotlights the film work that established Sinatra as America’s first mass-cultural super-icon while respecting his pre-eminence as a vocal artist, always the essential core of his appeal.
That said, the album constitutes a patchwork of classics, semi-classics, novelty songs, and even some near-filler. The best of the bunch throw Sinatra’s remarkable gifts into stark relief, but even the worst are hardly without merit, due largely to his impeccable interpretive skills. A tune like “The Lady Is a Tramp” is Sinatra’s bread and butter: a jaunty swing arrangement, juicy colloquial lyrics, ample opportunity to show off the warm, barely off-beat phrasing that is his signature. “All the Way” is the other side of the silver dollar, a smooth honeydripper of a ballad that evokes the loneliness of love as much as its delights. And even when he’s hauling about labored insectoid metaphors for bootstraps-up pluckiness alongside a chorus of children in “High Hopes”, he leans into every cornball “whoops!” with aplomb. Never for a moment is his professionalism in doubt.
But the songs aren’t the thing; they could have been anyone’s to sing, and in the pre-singer/songwriter era of American pop, they tended to be. For Sinatra, it’s all about phrasing, flow, and note-hitting. Though his performance of “How Deep Is the Ocean”, for instance, is flawless, it’s not Sinatra’s perfection but his quirks that make these readings noteworthy. In “(Love Is) The Tender Trap”, he lays on the knowing sexuality thickly, pronouncing “tingle” with a suggestive drop in tone. In the famous “Chicago”, he tosses off “I love it” in between lines like a flicked cigarette butt. And there’s something entirely endearing about his Italianized French mispronunciations in “C’est Magnifique”.
Although Sinatra at the Movies is a useful document of Sinatra’s singular vocal prowess, it’s oddly lacking in context, an unavoidable side effect of the compilation process. This is unfortunate in Sinatra’s case, seeing as he was one of the first recording artists to work on the assumption that records could have a context. This is a key component of Sinatra’s enduring appeal with left-of-centre youth subculture. He was the biggest star in the world, but he also pioneered the concept album, as well as the musician’s ideal of creative control through the founding of his own record label. That his attempted innovations seem like baby steps (and that his label was eventually bought up by a conglomerate and, decades later, refused to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in an ironic reversal of its founding premises) should not diminish them, nor does it even touch the prodigal talent that allowed him the freedom to take a swing at them. Sinatra at the Movies never loses sight of the core of the icon called Frank Sinatra, but the contextual possibilities that orbit around that core are ultimately beyond its purview.