Alex Gibney‘s All Or Nothing At All (HBO, 4.5 and 4.6), the two-part, four-hour doc on Frank Sinatra, is quite the loving valentine. It goes easy and then some, but it makes you feel like you’re in Sinatra’s home corner every step of the way, and in this sense it’s unique — there’s never been this much love and understanding shown to Sinatra and his legend from a polished, first-class doc by a world-renowned director. It’s Gibney’s trick, of course, to make you feel that you’re not being egregiously lied to. Which of course the doc is definitely doing by omission. What matters is that Gibney’s accumulation of lies are, at day’s end, artful. Because the doc is filled with bedrock emotional truths and echoes.
This is an intimate saga of an artist with a profound vocal gift, a legendary sense of style, a swaggering ego, an open heart when it came to friends and family, a lust for the ladies, a chip on his shoulder and a street attitude that led to certain feelings of kinship and camaraderie with mob guys. And you can’t beat the first 56 years of Sinatra’s life (’15 to ’71) for sheer emotion, Shakesperean drama, urban pizazz, ups and downs, top-of-the-world success and down-in-the-gutter career blues…a saga of an all-American, knock-around life that spanned most of the 20th Century, and one that became less and less interesting when Sinatra turned smug and gray and more-or-less Republican in the late ’60s until his death on 5.14.98 at age 82.
I was quite moved and charmed by much of it, but this is a family-approved doc that’s basically about re-igniting commercial interest in Sinatra product (CDs, films) by way of celebrating his 100th birthday, which is actually not until 12.12.15. That means it’s really friendly…a doc that is always looking to show love and understanding or at least muted affection…a highly skillful handjob as far as classy, high-end biopics go. No judgment, no impartiality…every well-known or rumored-about negative in Sinatra’s bio is finessed or explained away in some first-hand, no-big-deal fashion by Sinatra himself or by a friend, or otherwise brushed off.
In no way, shape or form does Gibney’s doc approach the tone or the attitude or the sometimes cutting observations in Gay Talese‘s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” a landmark 1966 profile of the then 51-year-old singer at a vaguely downish stage in his life. In no way does Gibney’s doc try to get into a thumbnail view of Sinatra that author Nick Tosches ascribed to Dean Martin — “A half a mozzarella who never grew up.” All or Nothing At All is about kind, understanding thoughts and contemplations. I wouldn’t even call it “forgiving” because accusations are really never heard. But it’s quite skillful and heartening and…what, calming? Gentle, intimate, stirring…always a sense of Sinatra’s sadness and vulnerability. I’m actually thinking of watching Part One all over again.
All Or Nothing At All will certainly push emotional buttons with anyone old enough to remember Sinatra’s salad days, or who at least felt they half-knew him through his ’50s and early ’60s movies, records and TV appearances when he was Mr. Swinging, Swaggering King Shit with the chickie-baby patois and the narrow-brimmed hat and the mixed drinks and the dangling cigarette and the trenchcoat and the all-but-disappeared hairline who hated most journalists (and punched a couple of them) and who undressed and harpooned and was otherwise pleasured by hundreds and hundreds of “broads”, but I wonder if the under-40s are even half-interested. Sinatra lived a concept of masculinity and a sense of guys-first entitlement that is all but extinct today. Hell, the whole Sinatra swingin’ thing was beginning to wind down by the time the Beatles arrived.
The first two hours (traumatic birth to winning his Best Supporting Actor Oscar in March 1954 for From Here To Eternity, which re-launched his career) are the best part, the first 70 or 80 minutes of Part Two (mid to late ’50s, Nelson Riddle, Rat Pack stories, JFK stories, Mia Farrow stories) are engaging for the most part, but the last 40 minutes of Part Two (getting older and becoming Ronald Reagan‘s buddy and slowly losing his singing voice) are kind of sad and blah. And the end, I feel, is too much of a rah-rah cheer. The end of any life isn’t about rah-rah. It’s about “it’s over already?”
Gibney’s strategy has been to eliminate the usual taking heads and use only talking voices — primarily Sinatra’s but also family members, ex-wives, friends — along with a non-stop barrage of footage and stills of Frank, Frank, Frank, Frank, Frank, Frank, Frank, Frank, Frank. After a while you start wishing for the sight of a talking head or two just to break up the monotony. On the other hand I admire Gibney’s courage in diverting from the usual-usual. The doc feels a little splotchy at times, a teeny bit raggedy. It doesn’t feel as smooth and bump-free as many docs I’ve seen under the PBS “American Experience” aegis, but it’s mostly a comfortable, committed ride.
Is it one of those warm-bath docs that you can’t help but settle into and feel good about? Mostly, yeah, it is. You can’t help but root for Sinatra because you’re always sensing the hurt and the restlessness, the need to prove it, the moment-to-moment seesaw nature of his life. And because he was a good liberal in his youth and middle-age who stood against ethnic and racial discrimination.
Sinatra never found God or satori, did yoga, dropped LSD like Cary Grant. The social upheavals of the late ’60s and early ’70s freaked him out, I suspect, and turned him into a rightie. He was who he was — a tough, charming, sometimes pugnacious, blunt-spoken streetcorner guy. (I love the joke that Sinatra says he told in the MGM commissary about Louis B. Mayer having broken his hip because “he fell off Ginny Simms” — a joke that resulted in his being kicked off the MGM lot.) But anyone who looks at photos of a grinning Sinatra in the ’50s or listens to one of the better songs recorded during the Nelson Riddle period knows the truth of it…that he always had that glint in his eye, that snap of the fingers, that rhythm, those delicious Hoboken vowels and that velvety voice with the vibes…”like the man says, one more time.”