10 September 2015 | l_rawjalaurence
Lengthy Biography That Seems Uncertain in its Treatment of its Subject
SINATRA - ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL cannot be viewed as anything less than a highly comprehensive biography of the legendary actor/singer. Through four hour-long episodes, director Alex Gibney traces his life from his humble origins in Hoboken, New Jersey, to his radio and film stardom, his abrupt decline in the early Fifties, and his return to enduring stardom once he had signed for Capitol Records and started collaborating with the conductor Nelson Riddle.
Although liberally illustrated with reminiscences from members of his family, coupled with archive recordings of "Ol' Blue Eyes" being interviewed on television on radio, and readings of printed autobiographies by Ava Gardner, there are no talking heads appearing on screen. Instead, director Gibney uses archive footage, photographs and specially-shot material, with the reminiscences in sound only. This gives the documentary a unique narrative fluidity that Gibney sustains throughout the lengthy running-time.
The central conceit was a good one - using Sinatra's retirement concert in 1971 as a basis, where he sang a series of standards that chronicled his life up to then - Gibney traced the singer's life through the songs. Each one of them were heard once a particular period of his life had concluded. Hence we heard "My Way" right at he end when Sinatra had decided to "finally" retire, having ostensibly fulfilled everything he wanted. The fact that he made a comeback three years later was beside the point.
Yet still we are left unsatisfied as to where the director's point of view actually lies. There are certain aspects of Sinatra's life that are either sketchily told or omitted altogether; we hear nothing of his nefarious antics in the early Sixties where JFK and Marilyn Monroe were concerned. Nor do we really discover much about his Mafia connections, except to learn that he enjoyed hob-nobbing with those in power. At one point the documentary refers to his ventures as an entrepreneur, as he founded his own airline (among other things), but that strand is subsequently ignored. We do not know how successful the singer was as a business person.
Although the program justifiably makes much of Sinatra's god-given talent as a singer, he nonetheless comes across as a distinctly unsavory personality. He treated two of his four wives extremely badly - only Ava Gardner could really stand up to him; and he seems to have assumed that any woman he encountered would want to go to bed with him. An inveterate social climber, he spent much time and energy helping JFK win his presidential campaign of 1960; but when the Kennedys dropped him - on account of his connections with Mafia boss Sam Giancana - Sinatra transferred his loyalties to the Republican cause. In later life he came out as a supporter of Nixon and Reagan. He obviously did not like to be crossed; there were several instances of him replying to someone with a mouthful of abuse.
The interviewees worked hard to foreground his qualities - his enduring commitment to the cause of anti-racism, his generosity with underprivileged children - but we still got the sense that he was not undertaking them out of altruism. So long as he obtained a good press as a result, then he was prepared to continue.
Perhaps it's best sometimes that we do not know the intimate details of an icon's personality, as it tends to knock them down from the imaginative pedestal on which we place them.