Bruce Springsteen's voice sets the tone for Alex Gibney's riveting documentary portrait of Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All. "The Boss" says, I first heard him when my mom and I used to hunt down my dad in New Jersey saloons. Hear that? His mother would say. That's Frank Sinatra. Even Stevie van Zandt, who attended the premiere at the Time Warner Center this week, raised an eyebrow at Springsteen's candor. "All or Nothing at All," the title of one of his songs aptly defines his code; the film neatly weaves Sinatra's line, a leitmotif, as he rises in artistry and fame, and personally in cycles of sad and sublime. With testimony from Frank's family, "Italian" wife Nancy, son Frank, Jr., daughters Nancy and Tina, and stunning actress Ava Gardner (her words from a transcribed interview read by Gina Gershon) for whom he left Nancy, the documentary to air this weekend on HBO reveals filmmaker Alex Gibney's gift for making films that feel like the subjects, even deceased ones, thrive in the next room, still singing and living their successes and troubles.
Framed around a farewell concert, the film focuses on Sinatra's craft: jazz musicians loved to play with him, his voice another instrument. A story of rags to wealth and stardom, the film shows what it took for him to come from from a lower class background, through the Depression, marrying the girl next door, having flings with women, and mingling with the mob and politicians. Sinatra befriended John F. Kennedy, and stumped for Reagan and Nixon. He worked for civil rights and a variety of philanthropies. Tina Sinatra eloquently attests to her dad's mourning for Kennedy in his Palm Beach home. In part 2, Mia Farrow speaks about her marriage to Frank. He served divorce papers to her while she was on the set of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. He wanted her for his own film, and, in the age of Janis Joplin, could not abide his wife putting him off.
But the premiere was a night for celebration, and not only for Sinatra. Turns out, director Alex Gibney, with his recently aired Going Clear, his film about the Church of Scientology, broke records for HBO. So after the 2-hour first half of Sinatra, a happy crowd filed into Porterhouse for Italian themed specialties of burrata caprese, filet mignon, spumoni and cannoli in abundance. Gibney looked pleased too, even though, as an authorized biographical portrait, the film did not include everything he wanted. Still, rich in music and archival material, All or Nothing at All is deeply satisfying, documenting, in the words of Pete Hamill, why Sinatra matters.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.