“Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” premiering Sunday, April 5, traces the singer’s determination to stay on top, until his fateful “farewell” concert in 1971.
The Voice. Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board.
All of Frank Sinatra’s nicknames speak to the sense of authority that made him one of the 20th century’s greatest entertainers. But in a 1971 concert at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre — a show billed as his farewell after a string of coolly received albums — it wasn’t Sinatra’s power that struck filmmaker Alex Gibney.
“This was a moment when the culture had passed him by,” said Gibney, known for his documentaries on James Brown and Fela Kuti as well as for HBO’s much-discussed “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”
“It’s his big concert, and who does he invite? Henry Kissinger and Spiro Agnew,” Gibney went on. “He doesn’t invite John Lennon, you know what I mean? That’s where the culture was in ’71, and he was no longer ahead of it in the way he often was in the past. I think that weighed very heavily on him.”
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Four decades later, Gibney has used rarely seen footage from that Ahmanson gig in “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” a two-part HBO documentary set to air on Sunday and Monday (April 5-6).
Charting the singer’s legendary determination to stay on top, the film takes each of the 11 songs Sinatra sang that night as the basis for a chapter in his complicated life — from his scrappy childhood in Hoboken, N.J., to his initial ascent as an early-1940s teen idol and on to the series of flameouts and comebacks that would define his career over the next half-century.
“When Alex examines a subject, whether it’s a person or something like Scientology, he delves really deeply into it,” said Frank Marshall, the veteran producer who drafted Gibney to direct the film after they’d worked together on 2013’s “The Armstrong Lie,” about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. “Sinatra’s life wasn’t one long stream of triumphs, and Alex was interested in how he got to where he was.”
The project began about five years ago, Marshall said, with interest from the Sinatra family in a documentary that would be completed in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the singer’s birth in 1915. (Sinatra died in 1998 at age 82.) Marshall knew the Sinatras through his father, Jack Marshall, a composer and guitarist who’d played on several Sinatra sessions in the 1950s.
That relationship ensured access to a trove of valuable material, including the film from the Ahmanson, which Gibney said had been languishing at Sinatra’s older daughter Nancy’s home. Grainy and apparently hand-held, the footage — with performances of “Angel Eyes,” “That’s Life” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — provides an unusually intimate view of an artist we’re more accustomed to encountering in the “glitzy but canned way” he was presented in so many network television specials, Gibney said.
“I think the idea was, ‘Oh my God, he’s retiring — we better photograph this,’” Gibney said. (As always, the retirement didn’t stick.) “So the crew was kind of hastily assembled.” With a laugh, he added that the assistant editor, responsible for making sure the camera lens was free of debris, should’ve gone back to film school.
“But who cares if it’s of poor quality? It has such a vibe.”
“All or Nothing at All” also excerpts a remarkably candid lecture Sinatra gave at Yale University in 1986 as well as audio from various conversations the singer recorded at home while auditioning potential collaborators for an autobiography.
Forgoing the typical talking heads, Gibney weaves these elements together using voice-over narration from people close to Sinatra, including his children and ex-wives, and peers such as Tony Bennett. The result is more immersive than many music documentaries, which the director said was his goal for a film he sees as “the story of America.”
“I wanted to think about Sinatra not just as the guy who had a lot of great songs but as the Great Gatsby,” he said.
Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming, went further, describing “All or Nothing at All” as a tale of opportunity and ambition that couldn’t happen today. “It captures a moment,” he said, “when Americans truly believed the sky was the limit.”
That noble characterization probably sits well with the Sinatra estate, which is using the singer’s centennial to roll out plenty of fresh product: repackaged music collections, a stage production in London — even whiskey from Jack Daniel’s.
Yet “All or Nothing at All” doesn’t skip over less savory aspects of Sinatra’s story, including his harsh treatment of women and his increasingly desperate attempts late in his career to adapt to the changing times. In one excruciating scene from a late-’60s TV special, we see Sinatra do his best to hang with the trippy soul singers of the 5th Dimension.
If the singer eventually lost his grip on pop, though, Gibney thinks he persists today because of the emotion and passion in his best music, particularly the ballads.
“In the film Sinatra’s son quotes Charlton Heston as saying that his songs were like three-minute movies, and I think that’s dead-on,” the director said. “He was really a storyteller in song.”