Shout Factory's new boxed set, the Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection, spans three decades and several countries to gather together Ol' Blue Eyes' finest television specials, creating a portrait of a mature talent moving confidently into the latter portion of his career. The shows are gathered on seven discs, with each selection grouping together performances based on both time period and theme.
Discs 1&2 - A Man and His Music: The Collection The first group of DVDs collects the four-part television series. Sinatra recorded the first three between 1966 and 1967, and then returned sixteen years later in 1981 to reprise the format and some of his most famous recordings. The A Man and His Music quartet is comprised of 50-minute specials featuring the saloon singer on an elegantly designed sound stage, featuring minimal, art deco sets that gave Sinatra an attractive platform from which to perform, but which never upstaged the music. The songs are arranged by Nelson Riddle, and Sinatra is backed by an orchestra. The first show features him working through some of his biggest numbers on his own, but the second is highlighted by a set with his daughter Nancy and a medley that includes contemporary hits like Petula Clark's "Downtown" and a nod to Nancy's own career. The 1967 special sees Sinatra focusing on rhythm and bossa nova, and joined by Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim. For the final retrospective, Sinatra is joined by no less than Count Basie.
Sinatra's voice is in fine form on all four of these specials. Even as he got older, he clearly understood the limits that the years might have put on his voice, and so he eased back into an increasingly comfortable style. Perhaps more fascinating for those of us who never got to see the Chairman of the Board in person is witnessing his onstage personality. Though his jokes can be pretty corny, his charisma and warm delivery more than makes up for the familiarity of the punchlines. There are some stars whose very presence onscreen makes it obvious why they are successful, and Sinatra is one of them. These shows are smartly low on frills, and all about framing the man and his music in the best light possible.
Discs 3&4 - Around the World: Or more precisely, New York, London, and Tokyo. The first three specials here come in just under an hour, with the added Japan stop being 71 minutes. The lead program, Ol' Blue Eyes is Back, was recorded live on a soundstage before an all-star audience (Lucille Ball and Sammy Davis Jr. are pretty easy to spot in the crowd) in 1973, after a hiatus in Sinatra's career. The show was intended to reintroduce the singer to his fans and hopefully bring him some new ones as he dropped a new album. Joining the singer is his old movie dance partner Gene Kelly, and the two do an amusing new song kidding around about their age and their past accomplishments. Sinatra doesn't seem rusty at all, he's a consummate performer.
Once again, the music itself is not monkeyed with. The traditional arrangements of popular tunes means that even though Sinatra was adapting to the times by being on TV, he wasn't embarrassing himself or diluting his brand by trying to get with current trends. Even if he was doing newer songs, like "Bad Leroy Brown," he made them work for him rather than working for them. 1974's Sinatra: The Main Event sees him even tame a giant venue like Madison Square Garden. He performs from a tiny stage at the center of the arena, working in the round, and making it seem like he's singing to each and every seat in the house personally. His performance isn't as subtle as it could be, he's swinging for the bleachers, but a little wink to the front row or a shout-out to a noise in the crowd makes it all seem intimate. Crowd watching is also pretty fantastic: the hair! The clothes! Oh, the 1970s....
The intro by Princess Grace of Monaco for Sinatra in Concert at the Royal Festival Hall is far more subdued and personal than Howard Cosell's hyperbolic New York lead-in, and the 1970 concert is also a more sophisticated affair. The more traditional theatre sees Sinatra standing in front of a full orchestra again, less out on his own. This seems to set the singer at ease; he's looser and more free to joke and dance. The energy is high from the start. The fourth concert here, Sinatra in Japan: Live at the Budokan Hall, Tokyo, is in another big venue. Recorded in 1985, when Sinatra was considerably older, he is a bit more restrained and less talkative, but that might also be a result of being on foreign soil. Since many of the standards are the same from set to set, it's pretty interesting to hear them become more refined. His self-referential verse in "Mack the Knife" here is fantastic, and the version of the Beatles song "Something" in Japan is the best in the box. The way Sinatra takes his time with it makes the song even more soft and tender, with the strings sounding gorgeous in this venue. At 71 minutes, the Budokan special is also longer than the rest, which are all around 50 minutes (probably a 90-minute special with commercials vs. hour-long broadcasts).
Disc 5 - Primetime: Collecting three of Sinatra's post A Man and His Music specials, this disc begins swingingly with 1968's Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing. And boy, does he, launching straight into a punchy "Hey Young Lovers" and then on into "Baubles , Bangles and Beads" before finally pausing for an introduction, wherein he makes some jokes about what his "thing" might be and, oddly, some topical comments about "kids these days." This is followed by a runthrough of Harry Belafonte's "Cycles," the choice itself being a subtle acknowledgment that Frank knew the times were a-changin'. Keeping it contemporary, Sinatra invites Diahann Carroll on the show, giving her space to sing two of her own songs ("The Music That Makes Me Dance" and "Where Am I Going") and dueting with her on a medley of spirituals (Carroll's rendition of "Motherless Child" is powerful), and also the band the Fifth Dimension ("It's a Great Life" and "Stones Soul Picnic" on their own, "Sweet Blindness" with their host). Without pushing it in anyone's face, Sinatra was taking part in the Civil Rights movement by showcasing African American music, making only the smallest commentary outside of the songs. The strongest statement, though, might have been the image of Sinatra and Carroll smooching when they said hello, which I can't imagine was something seen on TV that often back then.
1969's Sinatra puts Frank back in the solo spotlight with Don Costa's orchestra. Sinatra still keeps it fresh, though, leading with a cover of Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life." This special also includes his first time putting "My Way" into the repertoire (at least on TV). In fact, of all of these annual specials, Sinatra has the most varied set list. My favorite inclusion is "The Tender Trap," which caps an hilarious montage/medley of Frank's worst movie roles and the songs that go with them.
The final program on DVD 5 is 1977's Sinatra and Friends. As the title suggests, this one is intended to pair Sinatra with other singers. He performs numbers with Natalie Cole, Loretta Lynn, Leslie Uggams, John Denver, Robert Merrill, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett, as well as giving some of the singers solo spots (Lynn's "She's Got You" being a particular highlight). Sinatra introduces all the guests on a group opener, the whole squad taking on the jazz standard "Where or When," and with each coupling, he adapts well to the individual. He makes room for opera singer Robert Merrill by trotting out "The Oldest Established Floating Crap Game" (along with Dean Martin) from Guys and Dolls, and makes the John Denver duet work by picking the old/young "September Song." He also makes Lynn comfortable with the jazzy "All or Nothing at All," but the best team-up is bringing out Broadway-star Leslie Uggams to vamp it up on "The Lady is a Tramp." She kind of steals the stage. He steals it back for the second-best performance on the show, leading his own closing set with a version of "Night and Day" that has a funky Isaac Hayes-style arrangement.
Disc 6 - Concert for the Americas: The Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection is rounded out with this fantastic 1982 concert recorded in the Dominican Republic. Apparently unavailable in North America prior to this DVD, the 90-minute show is a runthrough of all the old favorites, with a tuxedoed Sinatra giving it his all. There aren't a lot of surprises here, it is pretty much a definitive Ol' Blue Eyes set list, opening with "I've Got the World on a String" and closing with "Theme from New York, New York," and adding for the first time a new song called "Searching." The one big shake-up is a mid-set appearance by famed drummer Buddy Rich (no relation), who goes to town with a furious solo on "Jet Song." Guitarist Tony Mottola also sits in for a heartfelt "Send in the Clowns" and "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars." This is a nice topper to the set, and Frank's years show in interesting, pleasing ways; in particular, I liked the gravel in his voice in the melancholy "The Gal That Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind." Hell, it would've been a nice career topper, but the life wasn't out of this swinger yet.
Shot for television long before the digital or widescreen eras, these concerts are all full frame and not as well-preserved as we would expect from a modern production. Resolution varies, and is sometimes soft with muted colors. Given the varying degrees of this, it's reasonable to believe that Shout Factory have worked with the sources available and tweaked them to the best of their ability. Interlacing is minimal, and overall surface image of each production is presented cleanly. Naturally, the newest program, Concert for the Americas, looks best. It has the crispest picture and the most natural colors.
All the shows are presented with basic stereo mixes that sound very good. The audio is presented without glitches and has good, warm tones. While one could maybe quibble over some of the video presentation, I find nothing to complain about with the soundtracks. The music sounds great.
Live at the Budokan and Concert for the Americas have the added option of a 5.1 audio mix, you will be offered the choice of which you want when you select the concert to play. Toggling back and forth, the difference is subtle during the performances, but the 5.1 does have an added kick.
The Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection has its seven discs packaged in five standard-sized plastic cases, which are then housed in one front-loading outer box. Along with the cases is a 44-page squarebound book full of photos, tracklistings, an introduction, and liner notes on every program.
Disc 7 is a bonus disc, featuring a couple of extra Sinatra specials. The 1957 Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank (26 minutes; 2.0 or 5.1 audio) is just as it sounds: a collection of Christmas carols sung by Sinatra and Bing Crosby, set up as the two men getting together for the holidays, and all on a cigarette company's dime!
The second program is called Vintage Sinatra (59 minutes), and it was produced for PBS in 2003. This is a collection of clips from his 1950s television appearances, and it features Frank singing his biggest hits from the period. There is also added commentary by his children: Frank Jr., Nancy, and Tina.
Finally, there are ten more songs here, gathered from various other TV performances. 25 minutes in total. Most of these seem even older (or at least in greater disrepair) than what is in the PBS episode. All are in black-and-white, and the selection begins with a kinetoscope of "Day In, Day Out" and ends with Frank signing "Moonlight in Vermont" on a set meant to look like a park, but that ends up looking like a graveyard!
Highly Recommended. Shout Factory's Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection is an invaluable chronicle of how a classic performer adapted to the then-new medium of television and made it his own. Spanning three decades, it shows Sinatra's evolution from soundstages to the world stage, developing the songs, teaming up with newer performers, and wherever he went, taking the songs to the people. There are seven discs here, including one full of bonus performances, making for over 14 hours of viewing. If you've ever snapped your fingers along to an Ol' Blue Eyes song, then this boxed set is definitely for you.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.