Thursday, April 30, 2015

Movie Review: Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, directed by Alex Gibney (2015)

Poster for Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, directed by Alex Gibney, 2015. I love that photo of Frank.

Frank Sinatra, circa 1961. Frank wore hats better than anyone.

An intense Frank Sinatra in the studio.

Frank Sinatra, 1970's. Note his trademark orange pocket square-orange was his favorite color.
Frank Sinatra is one of the major figures in 20th century American entertainment. Few figures before or since have held the public’s imagination for as long as Sinatra did. Sinatra was a cultural touchstone for multiple generations, from the time he emerged as a singer with the Tommy Dorsey band in the early 1940’s until his death in 1998. 2015 is the centennial of Sinatra’s birth, and nearly twenty years after his death Sinatra remains firmly entrenched in American pop culture. 

The 2015 HBO documentary Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All offers a four-hour glimpse into Sinatra’s life. The documentary takes its structure from the set list of Sinatra’s 1971 retirement concert. (Sinatra came out of retirement in 1973.) The film’s premise is that the songs Sinatra chose for his retirement concert reflected an overview of his career. I agree with that premise, and the idea behind that premise makes the documentary more than just a “and then he did this” film. 

I’ve written about Frank Sinatra before, covering his years on the Columbia Records label from 1943-1952, my 10 favorite Sinatra albums, and a piece covering the best Sinatra compilation albums. I’m a huge admirer of Sinatra’s amazing talent. 

All or Nothing at All is directed by Alex Gibney, who also directed the superb documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for HBO. All or Nothing at All is wonderfully made; it’s a great example of documentary making at its finest. The research into Sinatra’s life is deep, and Gibney and his team have unearthed superb video and audio recordings of Sinatra talking candidly about his life and career. There’s a lot of wonderful material on Sinatra’s early life in Hoboken, and his rise to fame signing with the Tommy Dorsey band. Early film clips show how revolutionary Sinatra’s singing style was. Sinatra’s voice was extremely intimate, as he seduces the listener through his ballad singing. It’s easy to see why women went nuts for him. 

The first two hours of All or Nothing at All take us through Sinatra’s rise in the 1940’s to his decline in the early 1950’s, when he was battling vocal problems, more competition from singers like Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Vic Damone, Johnnie Ray, and Eddie Fisher, and a relationship with Ava Gardner best described as tempestuous and doomed. By the end of 1952 Sinatra had been dumped by his record label and MGM had dropped his movie contract. It seemed as though he was headed for the has-been pile. 

The second part of the documentary covers Sinatra’s career from his remarkable comeback in 1953 to his retirement concert in 1971. 1953 was a pivotal year for Sinatra, as he signed a contract with Capitol Records, where he met the arranger Nelson Riddle and created the classic songs and albums that have made him a legend. 1953 was also the year that Sinatra played the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, one of his finest acting performances, which deservedly won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I wish that All or Nothing at All focused a little more on Sinatra’s films. Sinatra was a truly talented actor who delivered a number of excellent performances in films like From Here to Eternity, Suddenly, The Man with the Golden Arm, Guys and Dolls, Pal Joey, Some Came Running, and The Manchurian Candidate. But that’s a small quibble.

All or Nothing at All focuses on many of Sinatra’s personal relationships, and there are excellent interviews with Frank’s first wife Nancy, the mother of his three children. The treatment of Sinatra’s other wives was a little more problematic for me. I found Gina Gershon’s voiceover narration of Ava Gardner’s writings to be terribly overdone, and there was just way too much about Mia Farrow, which got boring for me pretty quickly. There’s also just one cursory mention of Sinatra’s fourth wife, Barbara Marx, whose marriage to Frank lasted longer than his other three marriages combined. 

The documentary doesn’t shy away from controversy, covering Sinatra’s famous feud with gossip columnist Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra knocked out in 1947, after Mortimer had called Sinatra a Communist in his column. Sinatra’s dislike of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen isn’t mentioned, but you can hear him express his feelings towards her in live recordings in the 1950’s and 1960’s. (He was fond of calling her “The Chinless Wonder.”) The film also covers Sinatra’s associations with the Mafia, and his acquaintance with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Sinatra’s children say point blank that Giancana and the Mob tipped the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy by making sure that Illinois ended up in the Kennedy column. What no one ever mentions about the 1960 election is that Kennedy had enough electoral votes to win the election even if he had lost Illinois. Sinatra was very close to JFK, and organized his official Inaugural gala. Eventually Sinatra fell out with JFK after Bobby Kennedy warned his brother to steer clear of Sinatra due to his Mob connections. JFK then canceled a planned trip to stay with Sinatra in Palm Springs, and stayed with Bing Crosby (a Republican!) instead. 

All or Nothing at All does a superb job of focusing on Sinatra’s politics, and his personal beliefs. Sinatra was a staunch Democrat in the 1940’s, who campaigned tirelessly for FDR’s fourth term in 1944, and was an unstinting champion of civil rights for African-Americans long before it was fashionable. The FBI investigated Sinatra for decades, not only because of his Mafia connections, but also because he was regarded as a liberal who might be a Communist. Sinatra gradually grew more conservative, eventually supporting Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The movie makes a little too much of Sinatra’s political switch, hinting that his support of Republican candidates was linked to his rejection by the Kennedys. I disagree with that. Sinatra worked very hard for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, appearing at a rally at the Houston Astrodome with Humphrey just two days before the election, and filming a TV ad in support of Humphrey. Sinatra endorsed his friend Ronald Reagan in 1970 when Reagan was running for re-election as Governor of California. In the documentary, Sinatra says that he has been friends with Reagan since 1943. Sinatra was no fan of the hippie culture, and that combined with his personal friendship with Reagan likely started his drift rightward. Sinatra endorsed Richard Nixon’s re-election bid in 1972, but due to Democratic nominee George McGovern’s unpopularity, there was a very large “Democrats for Nixon” group that year, so Sinatra’s support of Nixon wasn’t that unusual. I think Sinatra did get more conservative as he got older, but I also think his shift to the right was greatly influenced by his friendship with Ronald Reagan. 

What amazes me about the richness of Frank Sinatra’s life is that All or Nothing at All is a four hour documentary, and yet there’s still so much more of his life that could be covered. Granted, I’m a huge Sinatraphile, and I understand that four hours might be plenty for most people. But there are gaps, as All or Nothing at All offers only a cursory glance at Sinatra’s career post-1971. That isn’t the biggest loss, since Sinatra’s cultural impact was greatest during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, but still, Sinatra lived for another 27 years. 

I think that the people interviewed for All or Nothing at All did an excellent job of articulating Sinatra’s importance, but there were three Sinatra experts I wish had been a part of the project. I’m a huge fan of Michael Feinstein’s singing and his tireless advocacy for the music of the Great American Songbook. There’s no one who knows more about the songs of that era that Michael Feinstein, and he was a terrific commentator on this year’s American Masters documentary on Bing Crosby. I think Feinstein would have been a great addition to All or Nothing at All. I was also annoyed that two of the best authors about Sinatra’s music weren’t interviewed. Will Friedwald, who wrote the excellent book Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art, and Charles Granata, who wrote the superb Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording, were nowhere to be found in the documentary. Who knows, maybe Granata and Friedwald didn’t want to be part of All or Nothing at All, but I would have enjoyed a little bit more content about Sinatra’s singing style and his phrasing. 

Something that struck me while watching film clips of Sinatra sing is how much charisma the man had. You simply cannot take your eyes off of him. It’s only in film clips that you can really see how strikingly blue his eyes were, photos don’t seem to quite capture the color. Even as he aged, Sinatra remained an extremely handsome man, always dapper, with his usual orange pocket square. (Orange was Sinatra’s favorite color.)

Quibbles aside, All or Nothing at All is a fascinating look at one of the most interesting artists of the 20th century, and a man whose contribution to singing will be deeply felt in centuries to come.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Movie Review: Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance, directed by Mark Kidel (2013)

Elvis Costello, 1978.

Elvis Costello, 2010's. His aim is still true.
The 2013 documentary Elvis Costello: Mystery Dance recently aired on the Showtime network, and it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of Costello’s music. Directed by Mark Kidel, a veteran of music documentaries, Mystery Dance interviews Costello himself as well as Paul McCartney, Nick Lowe, and Allen Toussaint, among others. Mystery Dance covers Costello’s nearly forty year career in just sixty minutes, and my complaint about the film is that it’s too short. But when I was researching the film for this review, I learned that there’s also a 90-minute version, which has only been shown in the UK. I’d be interested to see the 90-minute version and see what it adds.

Hopefully the longer version adds more details, since Mystery Dance is a little light on those. In the film Costello talks about making an album and says he made it just because it was time to make another album. As he’s talking the film shows the cover for his 1981 album “Trust.” Is that the album Costello is talking about? It’s not clear. If it is, then it’s a damn good album he came up with just because it was time to make another one. I also learned while reading an interview with director Mark Kidel that he visited Paul McCartney’s studio and heard demos that Paul and Elvis made when they were writing songs together. It’s not made clear in the film whose studio it is, and I would have appreciated a little title telling me that I was seeing Paul McCartney’s studio. 

One of the coolest moments in Mystery Dance is when we see a clip of Costello’s father, Ross McManus, singing “If I Had a Hammer” with the Joe Loss band. Father and son look a lot alike, and the film highlights Costello’s relationship with his father, who was a trumpet player and singer. But again, I wanted more details. What did the elder McManus think of his son’s success? What did he think of Costello’s music?

Costello is one of the great singer-songwriters of the rock era, and he’s one of the most versatile, recording with everyone from Burt Bacharach to opera star Anne Sofie von Otter. Costello had a great quote in the movie, and I’m paraphrasing slightly, “Whenever you do something that’s a little bit different from what you usually do you get some people who act like it’s the end of the world. It’s not.” Costello is an ideal subject for a documentary, because he’s extremely articulate and intelligent. It’s also apparent how much respect other musicians have for him. Costello’s love for all kinds of music comes through very strongly. It’s great fun to see the wonderful Allen Toussaint talk about recording the album “The River in Reverse” with Costello.

There’s not much of an arc to Costello’s career as presented in Mystery Dance. No dramatic events or turning points are uncovered. I think there’s a lot more to Costello’s story, but maybe he’s saving that for when his autobiography comes out later this year.

Movie Review: Not as a Stranger, starring Robert Mitchum, Olivia de Havilland, and Frank Sinatra, directed by Stanley Kramer (1955)

French poster for Not as a Stranger, 1955. This poster is amazing, and much cooler than the English language posters.

Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, and Olivia de Havilland in Not as a Stranger. From what I've read Sinatra and Mitchum had a good time partying together off the set. But they look like such serious medical students!

Olivia de Havilland and Robert Mitchum in Not as a Stranger.
Stanley Kramer first made his name in Hollywood as the producer behind hits like Champion, which made Kirk Douglas a star, Marlon Brando’s first movie The Men, and Fred Zinnemann’s iconic western High Noon, which won Gary Cooper his second Oscar. Kramer turned to directing in 1955, and his first film as a director was Not as a Stranger, starring Robert Mitchum, Olivia de Havilland, and Frank Sinatra. The cumbersomely titled film was based on a novel by Morton Thompson, which was a huge best seller in 1954. There’s also a cumbersomely worded title song, which isn’t heard in the movie, but was released by Sinatra as a single. The lyric starts, “I think of you, my love/not as a stranger.” But Sinatra still sings it well, of course. 

Not as a Stranger follows Lucas Marsh (Mitchum) as he navigates his way through medical school and becomes a doctor in a small town. Lucas is idealistic and stubborn, unlike his friend, fellow medical student Alfred (Sinatra) who just wants to make money and drive a flashy car. When Lucas learns that Swedish nurse Kristina Hedvigson (de Havilland) has a crush on him, he is initially disinterested until he learns that she has saved up enough money to help bankroll him through medical school. Lucas then starts dating Christina and marries her. The film follows Lucas to the small town he and Christina settle in. Because he never really loved Christina, Lucas starts a relationship with Harriet Lang, a rich widow in town (Gloria Grahame). Lucas eventually sees how selfish he’s become, breaks things off with Harriet, and returns to Kristina, who still loves him. 

Not as a Stranger is a good film, but it has some faults. With a running time of 135 minutes, the movie is too long. It’s almost two separate movies, as the first part tells the story of Lucas getting through medical school, and the second tells the story of Lucas being a young doctor in a small town. Some judicious editing might have improved the pacing of the film. The second major problem with the movie is that all three leads are way too old for their parts. Mitchum and Sinatra look like the oldest medical students ever. These roles were probably meant for actors under 30, and Mitchum, Sinatra, and de Havilland were all in their late 30’s when the film was made. 

Mitchum gives a good performance as the selfish Lucas. A more intense actor like Montgomery Clift might have done it better and given Lucas more of an edge, but Mitchum is just fine. There were plenty of reasons that female fans of Mitchum’s would enjoy the movie, as he’s on screen just about the whole time, and he has a couple of opportunities to remove his shirt and show off his muscular physique. As I’ve written about Mitchum before, he had some odd features, with his deeply hooded eyes, broken nose, and very broad shoulders. But Mitchum had an undeniable magnetism and charisma on the screen. Sinatra turns in an excellent supporting performance as Alfred, and his scenes are evidence of what a superb actor he was. De Havilland does the best she can with her role, but her Swedish/Minnesotan accent, and dyed blonde hair, are cringe-worthy. The role of Kristina is a rather thankless part, as it just requires someone to be sweet and overly devoted to Lucas. 

The supporting cast of Not as a Stranger is excellent, and there are many familiar faces, from Lee Marvin as a fellow medical student, Broderick Crawford as a doctor at the medical school, Lon Chaney Jr. as Lucas’ alcoholic father, Harry Morgan doing his best Swedish accent as Oley, the husband of the family that Kristina lives with while she attends nursing school, and Gloria Grahame as the femme fatale Harriet Lang. Grahame is very believable as the rich and spoiled Harriet, and I sort of half expected Mitchum to run off with her and start a life of crime. Fun fact: Grahame’s sister married the actor John Mitchum, Robert Mitchum’s brother. Not so fun fact: Gloria Grahame married the film director Nicholas Ray in 1948. She later married his son Anthony Ray in 1960. 

Stanley Kramer is best remembered today for his serious dramas that tackled important social issues like The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, (which I reviewed last year here) Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremburg, Ship of Fools, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Not as a Stranger isn’t quite as good as those films, but it’s still an enjoyable piece of mid-50’s melodrama.