Skeptics were cynical, and cynics were skeptical, when it was announced that Tina Sinatra would be the one to produce a miniseries based on the life of her fabulously famous father Frank. It sounded like a sure-fire recipe for sugarcoating, with the less savory elements of Sinatra's combustive, combative life homogenized out.
But "Sinatra," written by William Mastrosimone and directed by James Sadwith, turns out to be simply terrific, the best and classiest miniseries since "Lonesome Dove." And it does contain many a scene in which Sinatra is depicted as something less than a singing sweetheart. "I'm such a dumb jerk sometimes," he tells the faithful wife to whom he has been unfaithful, and he's right.
"Sinatra" begins with a three-hour episode tonight at 8 on Channel 9, the concluding two hours airing Tuesday at 9.
Though consistently entertaining, the miniseries never does really chart Sinatra's dark side in a satisfyingly coherent way. He had to fight for what he got, yes, but where did that mean streak come from?
The absence of amateur psychoanalysis is a plus, but the film still owes the audience more of an explanation, or at least a theory. When, late in Part 1, someone tells Frank, "you can't go on like this," some viewers may ask, "like what?" because the internal conflicts have not been delineated.
Even so, there is an abundance of powerful drama and a bundle of great, great songs.
In Part 2, Sinatra consorts with mobsters. He, and the film, defend the association because, he says, these are "the guys who gave me a job when nobody else would," following a spectacular career nosedive. Later, he contacts Sam Giancana (Rod Steiger), but only, says the film, because Joseph Kennedy Sr. asks him to, saying he wants Giancana to deliver some votes for his son John in the 1960 West Virginia primary.
After the election and the Kennedys move into the White House, Giancana complains to Sinatra about Attorney General Robert Kennedy's crackdown on organized crime. "We don't use our influence for nothin'," Giancana says. "They owe us." Sinatra's reply: "I asked for the favor. I owe you." Here is where "Sinatra," which was produced with Frank's okay, seems to be rationalizing and making excuses.
We also see presumably the darkest period of Sinatra's life, when he carried a ten-ton torch for Ava Gardner, including a scene of Sinatra attempting suicide with a gas stove when fickle Ava has spurned him.
Essentially, the portrait is warts-and-all; it just doesn't show all the warts. But who really wants to look at warts for five hours? Within the inherent limitations of the show-biz biography genre, especially authorized show-biz biography, "Sinatra" is world-class schmaltz.
Utterly crucial to the success of the whole thing is Philip Casnoff's extraordinary portrayal of Sinatra. Nine minutes into the film, after a few scenes of Sinatra as a boy, Casnoff takes over the role, and before long, his absorption in it is complete. It borders on uncanny. Casnoff becomes Sinatra to the same degree that Larry Parks became Al Jolson in "The Jolson Story."
What do you mean, who's Larry Parks?
What do you mean, who's Al Jolson???
WHAT'S GOING ON HERE????
Ah yes, there are kids running around now who maybe don't quite know even who Frank Sinatra is. They should watch "Sinatra" and find out. They should come fly with Frank. They should hear some singing that's singing for a change, some music that's music, some manly angst that's manly angst.
Not all the songs on the soundtrack are actual Sinatra recordings. A few of the early numbers were convincingly faked by Frank Sinatra Jr. and Tom Burlinson. Sometimes, even the real Sinatra recordings don't work too well, as when Frank sings at the Paramount theater and a mysterious unseen chorus joins him from out of nowhere.
CBS says the miniseries takes Sinatra from his childhood to the present, but actually, it takes him only to 1974, when he gave a roof-rattling and career-reviving concert at Madison Square Garden. By then, what he had fought so hard to prove was finally common knowledge: Frank Sinatra was as good as it got, and maybe as good as it ever will get.
The film details the hard knocks that Sinatra endured in abundance, the bruisings that contributed to his unmistakable style, that qualified him to sing with authority of broken hearts. Always he remained to some extent the tough kid from Hoboken, and this enhanced the legend: Here was a palooka who sang like a saint.
Cleverly, disarmingly, the film weaves the songs into a commentary on his life. When, late in middle age, he dates Mia Farrow, we hear "You Make Me Feel So Young." When Gardner walks out on him for good, it's "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)." Pearl Harbor is turned into a still montage to the tune of "I'll Be Seeing You."
Lurking in the background as an instrumental throughout is, inevitably, "It Was a Very Good Year," one of the many Sinatra signature tunes. At some stage in his professional life, Sinatra's songs all started sounding autobiographical, and the film uses them skillfully without pushing it.
Other than Casnoff, standouts in the cast include Olympia Dukakis as Dolly, Sinatra's loud, pushy, cantankerous mother; and Gina Gershon as Nancy Barbato Sinatra, the first wife who encouraged Sinatra to become a singer even when everyone else was discouraging him, and who he then coldly dumped, apparently out of restlessness or boredom or something.
Gershon, who has an arresting, off-beat kind of beauty and gives a deftly affecting performance, utters one of the key lines when she tells Sinatra early in his career, "You're so busy trying to grab on to the next moment, you don't have any time for the moment now."
The big disappointment is Marcia Gay Harden as Ava Gardner, a ridiculously inadequate portrayal. Why would they cast an actress so non-smoldering, and with such an odd nose, as the smoky and sultry Ava?
Joe Santos doesn't have much to do as Sinatra's father, but does it fairly well. Nina Siemaszko is kind of a joke as Mia Farrow, once Frank reaches the September of his years. The Rat Pack era has various actors doing passable impersonations of some of the Kennedys and Peter Lawford. Danny Gans has such a good time as Dean Martin that you may wish he had more screen time. David Raynr is similarly adroit as Sammy Davis Jr.
People who are very familiar with Sinatra's career may learn little they didn't know, but others have surprises in store. The big band era gets a fresh treatment, the screenplay admitting that those beloved big band leaders could also be incredible cheapskates. Tommy Dorsey (very well played by Bob Gunton) signs Sinatra to a contract guaranteeing Dorsey 43 percent of Sinatra's earnings for life if he leaves the band.
The contract was later nullified but Dorsey's parting words to Sinatra are, "Personally, I hope you fall flat on your ass." It was, indeed, a tough world in which Sinatra made his mark and then, frustratingly, had to keep making it. The film captures the boozy nights and the rueful mornings after in a way that inspires trust.
How much is true, though, and how much fanciful? It may not matter all that much when dealing with a legend, which Sinatra is nothing if not. The miniseries named after him is, appropriately enough, almost mythically enjoyable.