Sinatra: All or Nothing At All (2015) – A Review


A review of the 2015 HBO documentary Sinatra: All or Nothing about the life and career of Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra documentary

A mammoth four-hour documentary covering the music, career and life of Frank Sinatra. From his early childhood as a poor kid in Hoboken, NJ to becoming one of the most famous and powerful entertainers of his time.

The film recounts his life through film footage, photographs, the personal words of himself, his family and friends, but most importantly through his music. The film is framed around Sinatra’s 1970 retirement concert and the eleven songs that he chose to represent his life. Those songs are used somewhat like chapter markers for each subsequent phase of stories in the progression of Sinatra’s life.

I’ve always liked Sinatra. He seemed to always to be around in my house. My parents would play his music, when he was performing on television they would have him on. My aunt would tell me tales of when she was a young bobby-soxer in the huge crowds screaming her head off for the young Sinatra.

Plus, being from New Jersey helped solidify that I was certainly aware of the state’s most famous son. In fact, when Sinatra died in 1998, my friends and I made a trip up to his childhood home in Hoboken and watched as fans left flowers and an eclectic range of mementos in front of his childhood home.

There’s no doubt Sinatra had a long fascinating life and it seems almost impossible to cover it all – even in a four-hour documentary. But Sinatra: All or Nothing At All does a pretty impressive job with the task. It’s a very well made comprehensive film intercutting archived footage and photos over off-camera narration by the participants that takes us on the road through Sinatra’s life.

Frank Sinatra young fansThe young swooner, marrying Nancy, becoming a teen idol, his early movie performances, the Ava Garnder romance, his decline, his resurgence after his Oscar win, the Rat Pack years, palling around with JFK and the mob, the kidnapping of his son, his marriage to Mia, his retirement – which lasted two years.

A lot of it I was already familiar with, but I also learned a few new small things. Most of it came from his childhood and his parents. It was interesting to learn how luck played such an important part of him getting his foot in the door so early on, just meeting the right people and being in the right place at the right time. Also his dedication to vocal exercises and learning to get the most out of his singing voice.

There was also some wonderful anecdotes about his work in the studio and his collaboration with Nelson Riddle. The extreme detail they would spend on the arrangements to get the sound just the way they wanted is quite impressive to hear about. It was that music that really solidified that Sinatra sound.

One thing that I kept thinking about during the early part of the doc is how Sinatra was able to transform into this skinny crooner who was popular with the female teen crowd into the swinging icon who everyone loved.

It looks like such a huge impossible leap, but somehow within ten, fifteen years he was one of the top artists for both men and women. It’s pretty amazing. I think about how many young singers who are unable to make that transition and burn out once their young fans get a little older. If this story was anyone else’s Sinatra’s career would never have recovered once his decline in the late 1940’s happened, but amazingly he came back bigger and stronger.

Frank Sinatra Ava Gardner affair marriageIt’s hard to nitpick the doc since it really covers so much, but there are events that are glossed over or never even mentioned that I would have liked to have learned more about.

For instance, I would have liked to have heard more about Sinatra’s acting career. Supposedly he was a real pain only agreeing to do one-takes for most of his later acting performances. I always found it ironic the man who was so motivated to land the part of Maggio in From Here To Eternity and all the work he spent on that performance would later become so blasé about his later film work. That is if that one-take story is true.

He’s also painted a little too nice at times. I’m sure Sinatra had some wonderful personal qualities, but like anyone else he had his flaws as well. It was often said that Sinatra could be merciless in his personal life. If he felt wronged by someone he would cut them off without hesitation for the rest of his life.

Nothing is said about the abrupt end of his friendship with Peter Lawford, who supposedly Sinatra felt was responsible for President Kennedy ignoring him after he won the election that Sinatra spent so much time to help.

His countless affairs are rather briefly mentioned and they seem to be chalked up as a minor character weakness. Even with his affair with Gardner the doc seems to hold her more accountable for the rocky relationship than Sinatra.

Watching the press reports and newspaper headlines unfold as Sinatra and Gardner were having such a selfish open affair in public made me feel for his wife Nancy and his children. It’s a pretty awful thing and no matter how much of a fan I might be of an artist and the glamorous image those antics might look like years later I still can’t justify that kind of behavior. I can accept they were not entirely decent human beings and had their fair share of flaws.

But, that’s life – at least it was Sinatra’s.


1 thought on “Sinatra: All or Nothing At All (2015) – A Review

  1. This documentary is historically inaccurate. Sinatra did not replace Jack Leonard in the Dorsey Band. Allan DeWitt replaced Leonard and Sinatra replaced DeWitt.

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