THE DOCUMENTARY "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All"
WHEN|WHERE Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the centennial of his birthday, Frank Sinatra -- who died in 1998 -- and his devout fans get this gift. It's a four-hour portrait of one of the greatest singers of all time, directed by Alex Gibney (who most recently directed HBO's exposé on Scientology). It begins in 1971, at Sinatra's 'farewell" concert at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, where he chose 11 songs that he believed best expressed his life's story. The first is Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." The last you can guess (hint: "New York" is in the title).
MY SAY Books on Sinatra tend to fall on a scale. At one extreme is adulation (Pete Hamill's 1998 love letter, "Why Sinatra Matters"). At the other, hatchet jobs (Kitty Kelley's 1986 "His Way"). But most TV portraits typically have been on the "nice" end of the scale. The reason is that voice . . . those songs . . . those eyes . . . that legend. After a few clips, producers are hooked (they're cooked) -- they're caught in the tender trap.
After all these years -- and long after the controversies -- the music and performances really are all that matter at this point anyway.
The latest to swoon is Gibney, and his "All or Nothing at All." This is four hours of love and music, but the film also wants to address those many controversies, then excuse them. The result: Some lily-gilding, and far too many observations we've heard far too many times before ("Ava [Gardner] couldn't be conquered") and factoids, too (he "hated rock and roll.") Swooning is fine, but offering nothing particularly new or revelatory can be taxing. And there are stretches of "All or Nothing" that do plod along.
What's best here are those clips, and songs. Even better, the closing minutes, which end with this Hamill assessment: "I liked his doubt, his uncertainty. He had confronted bigotry, and changed the way many people thought of the children of immigrants. He made many of us wiser about love and human loneliness and was still trying to figure out what it was all about . . . He was a genuine artist."