Alex Gibney is clearly a man of many interests.
Just one week after the television debut of the riveting “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief,” the Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker shifts gears dramatically, returning to HBO for “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All.”
The exhaustive but thoroughly enjoyable four-hour film, which will air in two installments Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m., is a deep dive into the life, loves, and — most stunningly — the music of the hero of Hoboken, N.J., who would have turned 100 this year.
While Frank Sinatra’s remarkable life and career — multi-platinum crooner, Oscar-winning actor, Rat Pack leader, legendary friend to President Kennedy — have hardly gone unexamined, Gibney had two major aces up his sleeve to ensure that “All or Nothing at All” would stand out from previous biographies: the complete cooperation of Sinatra’s estate, particularly his first wife and their children, and a copy of his famous, rarely seen 1971 “retirement” concert in Los Angeles.
The 11 songs from that performance serve as the backbone for “All or Nothing at All,” as it traces Sinatra’s trajectory from “boy singer” to international superstar over his first 60 years.
Gibney also had access to several long-form interviews that Sinatra gave at different points in his career — notably a sitdown with Walter Cronkite in 1965 and a conversation he had at a conference at Yale in 1986 — which allows Sinatra himself to, in effect, “narrate” his life story.
Along the way, many of the key people in Sinatra’s life (1915-98) speak about him, including legendary arranger Nelson Riddle, songwriter Sammy Cahn, one-time fiancee Lauren Bacall, Sammy Davis Jr., ex-wives Nancy Sinatra and Mia Farrow, and Sinatra’s children Nancy, Frank, and Tina. Akin to Brett Morgen’s technique in his Rolling Stones film, “Crossfire Hurricane,” Gibney chose to use only audio from those interviews, laying the voices over still and moving images, which keeps the narrative flowing. Several Sinatra experts and authors, including Terry Teachout and Pete Hamill, weigh in on his cultural significance, allowing the film to serve as a broader history lesson in the same way that Gibney's recent James Brown documentary, “Mr. Dynamite,” did.
While the film does not shy away from the more complicated parts of Sinatra’s life — his temper, infidelities, moodiness, mob acquaintances, and complex relationship with JFK — it also shines a light on less familiar areas, including his home life, civil rights activism, and sense of humor. But it’s no surprise the musical passages are where “All or Nothing at All” truly soars.
In addition to the central 1971 concert, the film includes dozens of performances — his masterful take on “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” stands out — that serve as acute reminders of Sinatra’s extraordinary gifts: the way he inhabited a song, his technical skill, his emotional connection, his ear for arrangements, his staying power. A quirky performance with a young Elvis Presley — a mash-up of “Love Me Tender” and “Witchcraft” — is another of the film’s highlights.
Gibney also received a major assist from the unsung heroes of the film, editors Sam Pollard, Ben Sozanski, and Anoosh Tertzakian, who seamlessly stitched the pieces of the story together.
For the casual fan, four hours is a whole lot of Sinatra, but the film is such a skillful weave and the subject so enormous — few entertainers have had careers like his, before or since — that it’s easy to surrender to it, and “All or Nothing at All” is an absolute must-see for diehards for the performances alone. (For those interested in keeping the mood going between installments, check out “Strictly Sinatra” with Ron Della Chiesa on Easy 99.1, WPLM-FM, Sunday night.)