“Reinvention” as it applies to an artist’s career is a term that’s been thrown around a lot (Madonna and Lady Gaga are obvious examples), but I also couldn’t help but have it foremost in my mind as I watched HBO’s new two-part documentary on Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 this year.
Nicknamed “The Voice” many decades before the current talent show of the same name, Sinatra was a proverbial phoenix who rose from the ashes at a critical professional (and personal) juncture in the early 1950s, when, as the broadcast reminds, it looked like the Elvis Presley of his generation would be relegated to the dustbin of pop sensations whose time had come and gone. But with an unlikely Oscar in tow (supporting actor for From Here to Eternity in 1954), he sprung open the doors on a remarkable renaissance and never looked back, all the way to his death in 1998.
The musicologists and historians can take care of the details of an unparalleled career, but I like to remember what Sinatra meant to a teenager a bit out of touch with her contemporaries, via a fondness for a vocalist whose ascendance in the public consciousness came in an epoch long before I was born. I recall that my fellow adolescents found it a little odd when I made a cassette with a song set of Sinatra’s on one side, and a selection from David Bowie – more in keeping with my generation – on the other. Far from antiquated, Sinatra’s music was like a silk tonic to me; his interpretations of the timeless standards by the impeccable songwriter Cole Porter were particular favorites, with an elegance and genius of musical phrasing that were indelible. (No, my young friends didn’t get it. Maybe they do now.)
A handful of years earlier, at the just out of tweens age of 13, I had found myself in a London restaurant with the film femme fatale (and Sinatra’s great passion), the actress Ava Gardner, on my first trip to Europe. It’s an experience I wrote about in another post, but suffice to say Ol’ Blue Eyes has been on my radar from quite an early age.
Sinatra: All or Nothing at All is not a perfect documentary (its four-hour running time could have been trimmed considerably) and perhaps more could have been made of Sinatra’s interest in expanding the pop genre (the “concept” albums of the ’50s, for example) or the many composers who influenced him deeply. (His collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim is an album I cherish, as fresh today as the breezy Brazilian wave it rode in on in the ‘60s.) Still, the biography serves well as a primer for new generations to assimilate a talent whose likes, alas, will probably not be seen – or heard – again.
To paraphrase the title of the book by the journalist Pete Hamill… Sinatra will always matter.