Frank Sinatra Was a Strange Cat

For many, Frank Sinatra is a caricature of a bygone era, a static character whose legacy commanded more respect than his work. That's only part of the story-- and so is this.

HBO documentary/miniseries Sinatra: All or Nothing at All tells part of the story Frank Sinatra in the space of four hours (or a segment of the story, anyway), and includes a second act that had more twists and turns than a television series trying desperately to hold on to its audience. Unlike this made for TV film, however, Sinatra wasn’t desperate (not that he showed us, anyway) and he needn’t have worried about holding on to his audience. But, man, what a strange cat.

Early press liked to play with myth and shroud his origins in a little bit of mystery and here we get what may be the straight story: he was a kid from Hoboken who worked night and day to rise to fame and once there he did what he had to in order to hang on to it. He paid his dues singing here and there and by the end of the ’30s he landed with Tommy Dorsey and within the blink of the eye, he became the man that women wanted to be with and the man that men wanted to hate.

His status as unfit for military service complicated the relationship he had with the American public during war time and some suspected that the fix was in. He underwent a second examination and was once more deemed unfit, but even decades later it seems hard to believe that this wasn’t part of an elaborate publicity stunt and that it was his celebrity that kept him at home.

There were other kinds of unrest: a little infidelity here, some self-doubt there didn’t help Sinatra’s career or health. He eventually made a turn toward films (maybe where his greatest talents were) and a long tenure at Capitol Records and collaborations with Nelson Riddle helped give Ol’ Blue Eyes the sustained and robust attention he deserved. As did landing at his new home away from Hoboken and beyond in Las Vegas. It’s during this chapter of the story that this documentary really comes to life — and some of Sinatra’s most frustrating quirks come to light

He was a man of liberal politics who was at home with mobsters as he was future presidents and then a man of conservative politics who seemed hell bent on destroying any hint of liberalism from his past. His efforts for the NAACP and friendship with Sammy Davis, Jr. were both traits that set Sinatra apart from the mainstream. His film work with the so-called Rat Pack and his eye for women were legion. His involvement with John F. Kennedy and then Kennedy’s rejection of him made the ‘60s a time of tumult for Sinatra. Some of it appears to have been brought upon himself as he began to openly mock Davis, and his work with Martin was both demeaning (to Davis) and openly racist.

That’s the Sinatra that detractors have long focused on: the guy with connections that appeared to run deeper than anyone thought, a guy who had a sexist streak and thought in broad, unsophisticated strokes. But of course that’s too simple a portrait.

Sinatra appears to instead have been a man whose heart could be in the right place, but whose drive for success and need to be perceived as tough guy overrode virtually everything. Or maybe John F. Kennedy’s rejection of him, which came in part because of his mob-busting brother Robert, became a little too much to handle. Sinatra saw liberals as hypocrites who’d sell him down the river the first chance they had, while conservatives needed a little star power and could easily champion Sinatra’s meteoric rise and unbeatable work ethic.

This is all told with file footage and testimonials from his children, an ex-lover or two, some close friends and time itself. Mia Farrow shows up to tell their story of their affair in unexpected depth. Then there’s the strange story of Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s kidnapping, which modulates the tone to somewhat place the rest of the story where doesn’t want to go, momentarily upsetting the cart.

It seems like a documentary devoted to either Sinatra’s label, Reprise, or his film career could stand by itself, and so a deep probe of either is sorely lacking here. The claim that Sinatra “invented the concept album” is a stretch, to put it kindly. Still, hearing the titular character sing, really sing, is one of the great joys of this documentary. There’s not nearly enough of that, here.

One of my gripes is that there aren’t many faces in this documentary. Quincy Jones tells his story via vocals only, the same can be said of virtually everyone except Sinatra, and so the extras feature of audio interviews can wear more than illuminate.

A lovely booklet featuring some candid photos and liner notes from Sinatra 100 and Charles Pignone’s The Sinatra Treasures are included. Pignone’s words are an added treasure to this journey. The journey, at the end, will provide the unbelievers, if you will, with enough to understand this complex man a little better. If, at the end of the day, Sinatra still doesn’t prove to be your cup of joe, you’ll have at least taken a ride.

RATING 7 / 10