Valdivia!, the miniseries based on Judge Victor Valdivia's life, premiered last week on Telemundo. It shows twelve hours of him flirting unsuccessfully with pretty record store clerks. Ratings could be better.
The True Story of the Man and the Legend.
That's certainly not an idle boast. Even if this miniseries sometimes devolves into soapy melodrama at the expense of in-depth details, it's still a remarkably objective portrait of Sinatra's stormy life and career.
Facts of the Case
Frank Sinatra (Philip Casnoff, Oz) emerges from Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of bossy, domineering local politician Dolly (Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck) and laid-back fireman Marty (Joe Santos, The Sopranos). Beginning his career as a singer for the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey big bands, Sinatra struggles to keep his marriage to his teenage sweetheart Nancy Barbato (Gina Gershon, Bound). Before long, his talent catapults him to both music and movie megastardom, but his personal failings place his career and marriage in danger. He endures tumultuous marriages and divorces with starlets Ava Gardner (Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock) and Mia Farrow (Nina Siemaszko, The West Wing) while juggling his movie and singing careers and forming significant friendships with an ambitious young senator named John F. Kennedy (James F. Kelly, Dark Skies) and powerful Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night).
Considering that this miniseries (which originally aired on CBS in 1992) was executive-produced by Sinatra's daughter Tina, and that her father cooperated with its production, it would be natural to expect that Sinatra would consist of blatant hagiography. Frank would be depicted as the hero, a noble lion who was always abused and beaten by everybody around him but emerged as the titan.
In fact, Sinatra pays Sinatra the honor of depicting him in all his complexities and failures. This is important because Sinatra, even though he never actually wrote any songs, always incorporated his personality, both the good and bad, into his music more than any other popular singer of his era. It was that approach that made him the biggest star in the world. Before him, popular singers like Bing Crosby never revealed very much of themselves in their music. Afterwards, generations of singers who idolized Sinatra, from Jim Morrison to Bono, would pour themselves into their music because that's how he did it.
Sinatra makes this explicitly clear. Early in his career, Sinatra visits a music teacher and launches into a version of "Stormy Weather." The teacher interrupts him, telling him that at 19, he's way too young to understand the song's lyrics of heartbreak and disillusionment. He's just singing the notes without getting the meaning. In a later scene, he attempts another torch song, "I'm a Fool to Want You." Only this time, he's in middle age. His selfishness and recklessness has left him with a broken marriage, a career in tatters, and a tiny coterie of paid hangers-on for a family. This time, he doesn't just hit the notes, he sings the song, and means it. It's one of the best scenes in the miniseries.
Sinatra is full of many great moments like that. Sinatra's towering talent and his moments of generosity and tenderness are seen, but are balanced with his moments of staggering egotism and thoughtlessness. From the beginning, his well-placed confidence in his talent is an important reason for his success, but it also makes him mercurial and difficult. He feuds with his band members, punches out reporters, and cheats almost compulsively on Nancy. He also helps launch the career of an unknown young singer and dancer named Sammy Davis Jr. (at a time when white performers rarely, if ever, went out of their way to help black performers), champions the progressive politics of FDR, and, of course, changes the sound of popular music forever with some of the most influential and groundbreaking music ever recorded. The miniseries doesn't try for cheap psychoanalysis or stoop to hackneyed dialogue in trying to explain the two sides of Sinatra's personality. In some scenes he's laying the groundwork for the many musical revolutions that followed in his wake (even if he never really liked or understood most of them), and in others he's consorting with a cretinous killer like Giancana. He's the same man in both instances, and the miniseries gives us the credit of letting us see the complexity of his nature.
At the heart of Sinatra is Philip Casnoff's performance. Casnoff doesn't quite look like Sinatra, and his voice isn't really similar (he doesn't sing, but instead lip-syncs to Sinatra recordings). However, once he enters the series as a 19-year-old, he is Sinatra. He captures the very mixture of vulnerability and arrogance that made Sinatra a star but also made him impossible to live with personally. Casnoff isn't quite as convincing in Frank's later years (and in the last sequence, which takes place in 1974, looks uncomfortably like Phil Hartman's impersonation of Sinatra), but by then viewers are so invested in his performance that it doesn't matter much. The rest of the cast is generally solid. Harden is the standout, capturing Gardner's icy sexuality perfectly (and much better than Kate Beckinsale did in The Aviator). Gershon, a talented and likable actress, is sometimes stuck with the role of doormat, but does get some moments of sweetness and humor. Siemaszko gives the weakest performance, but in fairness the script does her no favors; Farrow is by far the least defined of Sinatra's three wives, essentially dismissed here as a loopy flower child. Dukakis and Steiger do occasionally lapse into cartoonish overacting, but since their roles are relatively minor (despite their star billing), they do little harm.
The first half of Sinatra, on Disc One, is the best. The rise of Sinatra's career is fascinating to see, and it's especially thrilling to get an idea of what his life was back in his days with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey (there are some hilarious bits where he quarrels with Buddy Rich). The second half, on Disc Two, isn't quite as strong. It's an hour shorter but covers almost as much time, which means that too many important aspects get rushed treatment. This is especially notable as this period covers two marriages, his career crash and recovery, his Academy Award, the Rat Pack, his ill-considered alliance with the Mafia, and his friendship with JFK. It's too bad this section couldn't have been longer, as some important people and events get short shrift (Dean Martin gets barely two scenes in total). Some of the scenes where Sinatra squabbles with Nancy or Ava could have been excised, since after a while those start to become redundant and rather soapy. Granted, these scenes were no doubt put in to appeal to CBS's audience, which was presumably interested in this sort of melodrama, but their presence means that some important stories were left out. Nonetheless, Sinatra is still a must-see for his fans, and is even worthwhile for those who are just mildly curious. It's as close as Sinatra ever came to writing an autobiography, and it has plenty to recommend for anyone who is interested in biopics. Sinatra fans, of course, will get the most out of it.
Sinatra is presented in a full-frame transfer as it was originally aired. The film sometimes shows its age in a few spots (mostly just scratches and dirt) but is otherwise satisfactory, as is the Dolby Digital stereo mix.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sinatra's most notable flaw is that it sometimes glosses over exactly what many of his fans most want to see: the music. Though Sinatra's rise to fame is covered in great detail, much of his musical career after that is shortchanged. For instance, the series of albums Sinatra recorded for Capitol Records in the 1950s didn't just resurrect Sinatra's then-fading career, they remain amongst the most important recordings of his oeuvre. Albums such as Come Fly With Me, In the Wee Small Hours, and Sinatra Sings for Swinging Lovers! redefined the boundaries of singing and showed off Sinatra's voice at what was arguably its peak. It would have been fascinating to see how and why Sinatra made the choices he made during this phase of his career. Instead, these albums are all dismissed briefly, with just brief flashes of the cover art for some of them. The miniseries also never even mentions his one significant album of the late '60s, his collaboration with Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim, an album that was instrumental in helping to popularize Brazilian music in the U.S. Some of the scenes of Frank in Hollywood could have been exchanged for these, as Sinatra's career in film was, apart from a couple of exceptions, not as important as his career in music.
The lack of any extras is also disappointing. It would have been interesting to hear from Tina Sinatra about some of the decisions she made with this miniseries and how she felt about some of what it depicts, particularly regarding her mother Nancy. It would have also been interesting to hear from Casnoff about his performance.
Sinatra is a rare miniseries that could have actually been longer. The second half in particular rushes by at such a breakneck speed that some important aspects of Sinatra's life are dealt with only superficially. Still, even if the series could have used more time and a few more judicious choices, the strength of the performances (particularly those of Casnoff and Harden) and some surprisingly revealing moments make it worth watching.
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