Frank Sinatra, a singer from Hoboken, N.J., is the subject of “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” a four-hour documentary airing in two parts Sunday and Monday on HBO. Fair enough.
Among the ranks of male pop singers of the mid-20th century, Sinatra was the most modern — not the most technically good or melodically inventive but human, conversational and confessional; you can’t beat him for sorrow, and you can’t beat him for joy.
It didn’t happen overnight; indeed, the best sustained work of his career, done for Capitol Records in the 1950s, came after he was considered washed up for good, a former teen idol with a blown voice and a bad reputation. How he got there, and where he went afterward are laid out step by step, point by point, success by failure by success, in a film that, despite some ungainliness, will be catnip to the informed and a textbook for the rest.
Director Alex Gibney, who also directed the recent HBO documentaries “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown” and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” was working with the cooperation of the Sinatra estate, and his access to the family archives is doubtless responsible at least in part for the length of his film; “All or Nothing at All” might have been his editorial method as well as his title.
Much as Martin Scorsese did in his equally lengthy Bob Dylan documentary, “No Direction Home,” Gibney makes a concert the spine of his film: the 1971 Los Angeles performance that was intended as Sinatra’s farewell to music — a retirement that lasted all of two years. That Sinatra, only in his mid-50s, was at “the peak of his career,” as the film puts it, is certainly not true; but, after a rough start, his performance becomes something quite marvelous, and the film is full of other clips from across the years.
Like all authorized biographies, it does tend to plead its subject’s case, and though it is not by any means a scrubbed version of the life, Gibney’s take is sympathetic. He quashes much-told tales that mob pressure got Sinatra out of a punishing contract with Tommy Dorsey and got him the part in “From Here to Eternity” that revived his career — he was a movie star, too, children.
Gibney takes it all in, from the streets of Hoboken to the back lots of Hollywood; from the ecstasy of the bobby-soxers to the attack of the tabloids; from the singer’s progressive politics to his conservative politics. Family man, philanderer; boy next door, Chairman of the Board. If all the people who inhabit the person of Francis Albert Sinatra never cohere into one, perhaps that’s not a bad thing; it keeps you from making up your mind.
Sadly, Gibney does not end his film as the concert ended, with Matt Dennis’ song “Angel Eyes” and its apt last line, “‘Scuse me while I disappear,” but rather with “New York, New York” — his last hit song — illustrated with shots of sports teams, Broadway theaters, 9/11 and the Freedom Tower. It’s the Frank the crowd cheered for, but nowhere near the heart of his artistry.
Writers Terry Teachout, John Lahr and Pete Hamill bring perspective to the art and persona; third wife Mia Farrow discusses their relationship at length. All interviews but those with Sinatra are in voice-over — there is only one Voice seen here.
‘Sinatra: All or Nothing at All’
When: 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)