Sinatra: All or Nothing at All - no hagiography of the kid from Hoboken

Frank Sinatra by Gottlieb

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (BBC4) is an impressive piece of work.

The title conveys something of the exhaustiveness of the project: a four hour, four-part documentary (parts one and two aired consecutively last night) covering the life and career of Francis Albert Sinatra. You may not think you want to know that much about Sinatra. Trust me: you do.

Sinatra’s 1971 farewell concert, for which he chose 11 songs to sum up a life in music, is deployed as a framing device. But the frame can’t contain the man. It’s hard to imagine anyone more embedded in the American 20th century: the skinny kid from Hoboken who sang through a megaphone (“Guys would throw pennies,” he recalled, hoping to make him swallow one) before joining Tommy Dorsey’s band and becoming a superstar. When he left, Dorsey was so embittered he made Sinatra sign a contract promising the bandleader 43% of his future earnings for life. It didn’t stick.

Sinatra’s life also provided one of America’s great second acts. In 1942 he was on top of world. In 1952 he was washed up: fired from MGM, dropped by his record label, and estranged from second wife Ava Gardner. He was rescued by an Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity. As a singer he remade himself, becoming the voice of hard-won experience, the guy who wore his hat indoors.

Sinatra: All or Nothing At All is constructed in the style popularised by the makers of Senna and Amy: there are no talking heads, just disembodied voices illuminating the artfully assembled clips. What’s immediately clear is that Sinatra’s career was considered worthy of this level of documentation from the beginning. He told his story over and over again, as he himself were trying to decipher what it meant.

A documentary made with the full participation of the Sinatra estate was never going to be a pitiless examination of the “great dislike”, as one voice put it, that attended his celebrity (my father once referred to him in my hearing as “a crumb”). But this is no hagiography; it couldn’t have been. Sinatra’s flaws were too much a part of his myth – warts and all, or nothing at all.

Powered by article was written by Tim Dowling, for The Guardian on Saturday 8th August 2015 07.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010