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Sinatra

Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 13, 2008
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted May 29, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Somewhere in the middle of his illustrious fifty-year career, Frank Sinatra became more than a showbiz giant - he became a myth. He was one of the titans, and his backstory grew from simple biography to something far more. The CBS miniseries "Sinatra" does its best to temper the mythology of the Chairman, but even attempts to sidestep whitewashing can't prevent the legend from seeping through. Which is fine, really; the crooner was larger than life, and this biopic understands that.

Airing as a two-part event in November 1992, "Sinatra" casts Philip Casnoff in the title role. Casnoff, best known today for his roles on such cable series as "Oz" and "Strong Medicine," handles the lead with far more vigor than one would expect from someone cast for the look-alike factor. The actor brings a welcome depth to the piece, even when the teleplay calls for shallow; in later scenes, when the program finds itself pressed for time and we begin rushing through the key points of Sinatra's later years, Casnoff still manages to find the humanity in the role.

The miniseries works best in its first episode, which takes a little more time covering everything from the crooner's rise to fame through the beginning of his affair with Ava Gardner. It's presented with all the crude melodrama of an early-90s made-for-TV biopic, yet it still works: at age ten, young Frankie (played in these early scenes by Adam LaVorgna) ran with the wild kids of Hoboken, then came home to his mother's pub, where he would sing for the guests. As a teenager, he couldn't hold a job and dreamed of singing professionally, all while falling in love with young Nancy Barbato (Gina Gershon). Director James Steven Sadwith presents it all in a rather rote style, moving from biographical point to point without much passion, and the soundtrack score is rather unimaginative ("It Was a Very Good Year" plays over every single biographical highlight), although the commendable production design (the whole thing looks spectacular) and a charming cast (which also includes Olympia Dukakis as Frank's quick-witted, hard-boiled mother) give these early scenes enough zing to keep us interested.

Things really pick up once Frank's career does, as the screenplay (by William Mastrosimone and Abby Mann) delicately balances the myth of Sinatra's rise with the cold reality of an ambitious, often egotistical singer thirsty for fame. In one scene, Frank is so taken by the attention given to him, and not the other members of his singing group, the Hoboken Four, that he decides to go solo - a choice his father (Joe Santos) derides as "quitting," while a determined Frank calls it the only viable option. Later, when bargaining for work with various bands (including those led by Harry James and Tommy Dorsey), he would demand several solos, and his first day of rehearsals with Dorsey (Bob Gunton) would feature a power play by the young star, something the bandleader wasn't expecting.

All of this makes for fascinating showbiz drama, with the whirlwind rise to the top matched with backstage struggles (Dorsey, perhaps afraid of being trumped by Sinatra's fame, is a tough boss) and back-at-home failures (the more popular Frank gets, the more he ignores his wife and three kids). The script is also quick to include Sinatra's womanizing ways, and Casnoff puts a rascally twinkle in his eye - we can see how Frank got away with it all.

The teleplay plays equally fair with Sinatra's rumored gangster connections. In one scene, Frank gets hostile at the mention of such an allegation, and Tina Sinatra's name in the credits (she's executive producer) suggests an early reluctance to tackle the truth. But then comes part two, which openly deals with the singer's dealings with Salvatore Giancana (played with gentle grace by Rod Steiger). Here, Sinatra is seen asking favors - including wrangling votes for a friend of the Rat Pack, Senator John F. "Chickie Baby" Kennedy.

Yet most of the second episode doesn't work as well. The chapter opens well enough, with the collapse of the relationship between Frank and Gardner (Marcia Gay Harden, effectively capturing the sex appeal of her character), and there's some clever stuff involving Frank's admission that while wife Nancy gives him family roots, his heart belongs entirely to Ava.

But then comes the rush. Starting with Sinatra's Oscar for "From Here to Eternity," the rest of his life gets the digest treatment. Rat Packers come and go with no real clarity - if these were fictional characters, we'd be scratching our heads, wondering why these new friends of Frank were suddenly so important. Sinatra's courtship, marriage, and divorce of Mia Farrow spins by in a matter of minutes, most of it set as a musical montage. (It's as if the movie couldn't figure out why he was with this trippy young thing, and we're left just as baffled.) By the time the final scene arrives - a clich├ęd life-summarizing concert performance of "That's Life" - we're wondering if we missed a few key scenes beforehand.

It's the result of trying to squeeze in too much. Sinatra lived enough for several miniseries, and four hours isn't enough time to cover everything. It's an admirable attempt, however, especially in its first episode, which does a fine job of reconciling myth, legend, and truth.

The DVD

Warner Bros. spreads "Sinatra" over two discs, one episode apiece. The discs are housed in a single-wide keepcase with a hinged tray for the second disc.

Video & Audio

Presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast format, "Sinatra" looks surprisingly sharp for a TV movie of its era. Colors are rich and crisp, lines are clean, grain is absent. The Dolby stereo soundtrack does a fine job balancing music and dialogue, with Sinatra's songs (Casnoff was stuck lip-synching every note; smaller bits of singing, unavailable on record, were provided by Frank Sinatra, Jr.) clearly in the spotlight. Optional English SDH subtitles are offered.

Extras

None. For something trumpeted as a "collector's edition." Seriously.

Final Thoughts

A top notch first half more than makes up for an iffier, rushed second half, and fans will enjoy seeing Ol' Blue Eyes portrayed with a human touch. Rent It.
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