He's the gold standard among vocalists, the elusive artistic label for someone who sings the songs of others without creating their own individual material. Back when being a tunesmith was viable creative career path, stylists - often called "crooners" - would dress up the musically mundane with their expert phrasing and perfect pitch. Bing Crosby, Nate King Cole, Dean Martin, and Frankie Lane all made the most of the Great American Songbook, but none could compare to the incomparable Francis Albert "Frank" Sinatra. From his big band days with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey to a formidable '50s and '60s as part of the ballyhooed Vegas Rat Pack, no one could command a composition better than the so-called Chairman of the Board. Beyond his acclaimed acting. Beyond his prickly private persona. Beyond the latter years of hit or miss musicianship, Sinatra was and remains a shiny superstar. Proof of his power exits in a recently released set of concerts from his "comeback" of the '70s and '80s. Really nothing more than TV specials showcasing the man and his music, Frank Sinatra: Around the World may not be the best primer for the unknowing novice. For the true connoisseur, however, there is a lot to love.
Around the World is actually made up of four separate television 'concerts' circa the early '70s and '80s. Two come from America, while the other two originate from Japan and the UK. Lasting from behind 50 minutes to over 70, the singer settles back with a selection of his best known hits, as well as a few experimental exercises in back catalog canvassing. One of the criticisms of Sinatra in his later years holds true here - his voice is just not the pristine jewel it was 30 years before. However, his mastery of the form, along with his ability to really sell a lyric, remains steadfast. Here is a brief overview of the spectacle you will witness with this DVD set (no song lists...sorry):
Ol' Blue Eyes is Back (1973) - Sinatra "retired" from music in 1971, citing a desire to spend more time with family and favorite leisure pursuits. Less than two years later, his comeback special, similar to the one staged by Elvis in 1968, marked his return. Accompanied by friend and former MGM co-star Gene Kelly, Sinatra sings the standards, introduces a new song from his latest release, and reminisces about his past (and current) career.
Sinatra: The Main Event (1974) - now officially back and bigger than ever, Sinatra goes for full blown showboating with this intriguing "live" event from the fabled Madison Square Garden arena. Infamous sports caster Howard Cosell introduces the concert, even pointing out several celebrities in the audience. Then Sinatra takes the stage and wows the crowd with interesting contemporary choices ("Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"???) as well as signature selections like "My Way."
Sinatra In Concert at Royal Festival Hall (1970) - Before heading off to a temporary retirement, Sinatra performed for an appreciative London audience. Billed has his "final UK concert," he is introduced by Princess Grace of Monaco (another former film co-star) and then moves into a quasi-greatest hits overview, hitting on all the highpoints while reserving some surprises (The Beatles' "Something," a cut from the King and I, "I Have Dreamed") for this proposed last hurrah.
Sinatra in Japan: Live at the Budokan Hall, Tokyo (1985) - by the time of this rare appearance in the famed Japanese arena, Sinatra was fully back as a behemoth box office draw. He literally defined the 'event' tour - the regularly scheduled concert stop over where everything and everyone focused on the icon arriving in their town. It's no different in Tokyo, where the singer brings the house down with his near definitive performance. Not bad for a near 70 year old.
In the legacy of his particular artistic bent, there is none better. While George Jones can claim the country mantle and Elvis early rock and roll, Frank Sinatra is the singer of standards. That's it. All throughout his career, through the numerous classics and confusing concept albums, the man with the golden voice never varied from what made him great. He could take a song - almost any song - and instill it with a kind of emotion reserved for a dramatic reading. He could then carve the stanzas up in ways that delivered new insights into what seemed like obvious sentiments. All throughout his life, from the moment he became a favorite to an often fractured fairytale, he took his craft very seriously. Nothing else - not the rumors and innuendos, pre-tabloid tattling and interpersonal problems - could dissuade the public's desire to see him interpret the best that Tin Pan Alley had to offer. Certainly, as he aged, his voice diminished (he even had a ruptured vocal chord at one point), but the tone and timber of his sound was always secondary to what he did with a tune. He played the lyrics like a jazz musician plays a melody, maneuvering in and around it until it felt right in his aesthetic frame of reference.
As a result, the concert stage is both the best and worst place to see Sinatra in action. He caters and kowtows to the crowd as much as he plays them like a skilled showman. He panders as he pretends to care - and then he breaks into "One for My Baby" or a stellar reading of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and you don't really care about the smarm. This is the king in his element, exciting and exasperating all at once. Of the four shows presented, Budokan is actually the best. It has the best selection of songs, the best presentation of same, and the best performance by Sinatra. As the liner notes included argue, the singer was particularly keen on delivering a boffo concert for the Japanese listeners and he doesn't disappoint. Again, there are rasps and melodic grasps, but he's one point everywhere else. Similarly, the show in England is another excellent argument for his late '60s sustainability. Sure, the Summer of Love and the whole hippy movement had passed him by - Sinatra was not a fan or fixture of the counterculture - and his retirement seemed like a surrender to a pop chart that had long ago passed him by.
Oddly enough, the two American network shows are the most problematic. Kelly enlivens the Blue Eyes benefit, but Sinatra himself seems tentative and tired. It's almost as if he put so much effort into preparing and rehearsing the show that he forgot to save something for the actual broadcast. He's good - but we expect great. Similarly, the whole Madison Square Garden glorification is a joke. You can almost hear Cosell choking on his words as he tries to turn Sinatra into something akin to a musical Mohammad Ali. With the star-studded crowd (which the cameras just can't stop focusing on) and the desire to the audience to "participate" in the show - check out those old crones dancing like its uptown Saturday night - you get the impression of an insular love it that you, as the lowly viewer, should feel darn lucky to be invited to. Again, the way in which Sinatra shines above all this preposterous pomp and circumstance is amazing. His voice is a bit wonky, but works wonderfully through the material he's selected. If you want a completeist view of his career, get his albums. Frank Sinatra: Around the World is a concert experience for the converted, not the confused.
Oh boy - this is where things get a bit baffling. All four shows are offered in 1.33:1 full screen images that look culled, but not cleaned up from, old archival tapes. Budokan looks the best, with Royal taking a close second. The colors are a bit dim, but the optical clarity is excellent. Both Main Event and Blue Eyes are rife with analog issues. There's ghosting and flaring, bleeding and a troubling amount of play-feedback. The 1973 showcase is particularly troubling since it's just Sinatra on a black spotlit backdrop. The grain and videotape tracks are fairly obvious.
The first three shows all come with a single audio option - Dolby Digital Stereo ported over from typical TV Mono. Still, the range achieved and the sonic dynamic is dramatic. The fact that Sinatra plays with a live orchestra, often singing without a mic, makes the masterful mixing job from 40 years ago that much more impressive. Budokan gets a 5.1 option, and it's pretty good. The filled out aural element gives the concert more of a live feel. Otherwise, there's little that can be done with live music manufactured without much aid from individual amplification.
There is an enclosed pamphlet with information on all four shows, as well as credits. That's it.
You can't fault Frank Sinatra for trading on his status as a 'living legend' - and he definitely was that - all the way through the near end of his life. Audiences wanted to see him no matter what the state of his obvious gifts. Before he fell into self-parody (not necessarily an universal consensus), he still had some considerable spunk, and Frank Sinatra: Around the World shows this off brilliantly. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, the lack of perfected tech specs keep this presentation from ranking even higher. Of course, there will be those who don't appreciate what Sinatra did/was. They're the same simpletons who consider The Beatles "a boy band" and argue that Brian Wilson isn't a 'genius' but a petty pop songsmith. To those clueless clods, here's proof of Sinatra's star power. It may not always be flawless, but with these four concerts, his classicism is without question.
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