• U.S.

Crooning To The Top

3 minute read
Richard Zoglin



THE BOTTOM LINE: Don’t expect all the dirt, but this musical bio is surprisingly honest and lavishly entertaining.

The Hollywood musical biography has an illustrious history, but biography has never been its strong suit. The great examples of the genre — The Jolson Story, Yankee Doodle Dandy — are marvelous myths: ritualized stories of kids who rise to the top through sheer talent and guts. The journey may take a personal toll (marriages rarely survive), but it is worth it. In the end, we have the music.

Sinatra, a five-hour CBS mini-series about the pop-music legend, sounded unpromising from the get-go. The Chairman of the Board’s life story has been too public and too troubling — fights with reporters, alleged Mafia ties, stories of boorish behavior — to be much good as myth, and network TV doesn’t have the stomach for a real expose. Especially not in a movie produced by Sinatra’s own daughter Tina.

Well, she did it her way, and the result is far from a disgrace. The singer’s controversial life gets surprisingly tough-minded and balanced treatment. Philip Casnoff, who reproduces the young Sinatra’s lean, hollow- cheeked look without blatant mimicry, creates a convincing, full-blooded portrait. And in the end, we have the music.

The film takes Sinatra from his childhood days in New Jersey through his back-from-retirement concert at Madison Square Garden in 1974. Most of the familiar movie-bio cliches are here — young Frank argues with skeptical parents over his show-biz dreams (“I can do this! I can be someone!”) — but so is a lot of flavorful, crisply told detail. The young singer goes on the road as part of a quartet put together by Major Bowes; picks up work in a club where he has to wheel his own piano accompanist around the room; is discovered by bandleader Harry James but soon jumps to Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra, where he becomes a star.

Sinatra is best in these climbing-to-the-top scenes, and in its portrayal of Sinatra’s career slump in the late ’40s, when record sales dipped, his marriage crumbled and he even made a botched suicide attempt. His marital infidelities get ample attention, particularly his stormy affair with Ava Gardner (Marcia Gay Harden). Along the way, he is portrayed as an egotistic hothead with a politically correct tint: when a hotel clerk tries to deny a room to black band member Sy Oliver, Sinatra bullies the fellow into turning over a key.

The movie is silliest when show-biz celebrities parade on and off the stage as if it were Impressionists Night at the Improv. Sinatra gets marital advice from Humphrey Bogart, rushes to Sammy Davis Jr.’s bedside after his car accident and cavorts with the Rat Pack in a steam room at the Sands Hotel. The scenes between Sinatra and the Kennedy family are the phoniest of all, but they do open up the touchy subject of Sinatra’s mob links. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Joe Kennedy asks Sinatra for help with “our friends in Chicago who control the unions.” Sinatra obliges by cutting a deal with Sam Giancana (Rod Steiger) on the golf course.

When the music stops, Sinatra sags, but luckily that isn’t very often. Casnoff lip-synchs more than 20 classic Sinatra recordings, from early Big Band numbers to ’60s hits like That’s Life. Director James Sadwith uses the music shrewdly and liberally, often as background for narrative montages (You Make Me Feel So Young accompanies his courtship of Mia Farrow). It’s the most lavishly entertaining TV movie of the year.

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