DVD Review: Frank Sinatra - All Or Nothing At All

Excellent documentary looks at this remarkable entertainer's life and career.
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Frank Sinatra would have been 100 years old this year. To say his career was unprecedented would be an understatement. Starting in the mid-1930s and finishing in the mid-1990s, Sinatra was there for virtually every major trend in popular music and movies, managing to remain popular through all of them. To celebrate his remarkable achievements, an excellent documentary, All Or Nothing At All, has been released as a two-DVD set.

Directed by Alex Gibney, the documentary uses footage from Sinatra's 1971 retirement concert as a sort of audio and video reference for the important points of his career beginning with his first major hit "All Or Nothing At All." Sinatra himself narrates the documentary via archival interview clips. The film also includes commentary from his family, as well as contemporaries such as Tony Bennett to help flesh out the story.

Disc one covers the early part of his career. We learn that his drive to succeed most likely came from his mother and that his father served as a lookout for bootleggers during the Prohibition era. Organized crime is an underlying theme to the film, as Sinatra's alleged association with these types was well known throughout his career. An appearance on the Major Bowes' Radio Amateurs show leads to Sinatra's early group, the Hoboken Four, to a hit with their song "S-H-I-N-E," but Sinatra soon decides that he doesn't want to be in a group and decides to go solo.

Sinatra started hanging out in publishing houses, where he became friends with the likes of Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. After getting some singing lessons at The Brass Rail, Sinatra got a singing engagement at the Rusty Cabin. It is there where he hooked up with his first bandleader, Harry James and where his career started to take off. Not long after this, Tommy Dorsey, who had a falling out with his previous singer Jack Leonard, decided to recruit Sinatra for his orchestra.

It wasn't long before Dorsey began to have problems with Sinatra as well. Dorsey resented the fact that the screaming girls at their concerts were there to see Sinatra and not him. At the same time, Sinatra had the itch to go solo again. Dorsey didn't want to let Sinatra out of his contract, but relented only after making him sign a deal that would grant Dorsey one third of his future earnings. Sinatra managed to get out of this, too, allegedly with the help of his mob friends, which Sinatra always denied, and settled for a mere $50,000.

From here, Sinatra became a solo star, never looking back. He received criticism after being declared 4F and unable to serve in the military due to a perforated eardrum, but did a lot to support the war effort. Sinatra was also one of the first artists to speak out against bigotry and won an Academy Award for his short film The House I Live In, which dealt with that very subject. Sinatra became a movie star during the period as well, with Anchors Aweigh, which he co-starred in with Gene Kelly, helping to propel his film career.

Sinatra's fortunes would quickly change, however. Changing tastes led to his records and movies not being as popular as they once were and his affair, and later marriage, to Ava Gardner was controversial, especially since he left his first wife Nancy for her. Sinatra was forced to record novelty songs for his label Columbia and his career was at an all-time low. His career received a much-needed boost though when Gardner managed to use her influence to get Sinatra cast in From Here To Eternity, for which he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Disc two begins as Sinatra had just signed with Capitol Records. It was there where Sinatra was paired with Nelson Riddle and released some of the most critically acclaimed music of his career. Where he was recording dreck such as "Mama Will Bark" only a few years earlier, he was now recording definitive versions of "I've Got You Under My Skin," among other standards. Sinatra pretty much invented the concept album during this time as well, focusing an entire album around a musical theme.

Sinatra became friends with the Kennedy family during this time and allegedly used his mob connections to help John Kennedy get some much-needed union support and, ultimately, win the presidency. These criminal types assumed that Kennedy would turn a blind eye to their activities, but the exact opposite happened when he appointed his brother Bobby to become attorney general. A planned stay at Sinatra's home in the early 1960s was cancelled with Kennedy instead staying at rival (and Republican) singer Bing Crosby's home instead. This led to a falling out between Sinatra and the Kennedy family, as well as the Democratic Party.

Still, the early 1960s were a good period for Sinatra. He had reinvented himself as the swaggering leader of the Rat Pack, starred in movies with his friends such as Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and formed his own record label Reprise. Toward the end of the decade though, changing tastes and had left Sinatra behind once again and he decided to retire in 1971. The documentary largely ends here, though it does talk briefly about his post-retirement period, which began two years later.

The DVD is presented in 16x9 screen format and uses many archival clips, all of varying quality, but none of them unwatchable by any means. Audio options include Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Digital Surround Sound. Bonus features include audio reminisces from people such as Robert Wagner, Quincy Jones and his ex-wife Mia Farrow.

It is difficult to imagine any of today's stars having a 60-year career like Sinatra did. Few artists have been able to reinvent themselves and keep coming back in the same manner as Sinatra. While there are no explosive revelations in the documentary, All Or Nothing At All is a fair, well thought out look at one of America's most-loved entertainers.