Luck may or may not be a lady, but Alex Gibney is on a pretty fantastic roll, following his riveting Scientology documentary “Going Clear” with “Sinatra: All or Nothing At All.” Few entertainers have lives worthy of one film, let alone this two-part, four-hour extravaganza for HBO, but Frank Sinatra can barely be done justice even then. Timed to the centennial of his birth, Gibney’s meticulous production employs an intriguing, more visually engaging style of incorporating talking heads while drawing heavily on concert footage and Sinatra interviews. Simply put, one needn’t be a huge fan to start spreading the news.
In a clever departure, Gibney features only the voice of most interview subjects – including Sinatra’s children Nancy and Frank Jr., in a film made with the participation of Sinatra’s estate – thus allowing him to keep the screen filled with footage of Sinatra in one form or another. He also frames the entire film through the prism of the singer’s retirement concert in 1971, offering a glimpse of him belting out his standards in a showcase ostensibly designed to be a personal trip down memory lane.
The first hour rather dutifully runs through Sinatra’s early biography, before becoming a star singing with Tommy Dorsey’s band and then acrimoniously splitting from him.
The project really takes off, not surprisingly, when it moves on to Sinatra at the height of his powers, from his parade of famous romances – Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall, and later Mia Farrow – to his lobbying for racial justice, orchestration of the Rat Pack and friendship and work for then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. That includes footage of JFK visiting the “Ocean’s Eleven” set in Las Vegas.
Some of the best insights into Sinatra come from an interview with Walter Cronkite, asking him to address matters like his explosive temper. There’s also an interesting juxtaposition of his role with other musical icons, from Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, who Sinatra was smart enough to host and sing a duet with despite being largely contemptuous of rock music.
Gibney deftly weaves Sinatra’s films and songs into the narrative, showing him sing “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” for example, as Sinatra and others describe his tumultuous relationship with Gardner (who, in a reading of her memoir, calls him “good in the feathers”) and how insanely smitten he was with her.
“Frank was a womanizer,” Bacall says about him matter-of-factly in an old interview. “He wanted to be in the sack with everybody.”
Like Crosby, Sinatra’s celebrity derived much of its power from his success across various media, and was then amplified by his romances with other stars, his notorious ties to the Mob and his participation in politics, which took an unexpected turn after JFK’s death when he embraced Richard Nixon. Then there were the other bizarre interludes, among them the kidnapping of then-19-year-old Frank Jr. in 1963.
With “Going Clear” having just played on HBO and his Steve Jobs doc already stirring conversation, Gibney is at the top of his game, picking off high-profile subjects that bring a strong commercial streak and event-style heft to the nonfiction form. And like the subject of this latest film, he appears to be doing it his way.