Under the radar, mostly, there's a Frank Sinatra craze under way. Timed to the centennial of his birth, his life, work and legend are being celebrated. Not analyzed much, mind you, but certainly celebrated.
But here's the thing – one suspects that the desired level of excitement isn't there. Sinatra was a complicated figure and too much the embodiment of a time that now embarrasses us.
Earlier this year, HBO aired Sinatra: All or Nothing At All, a two-part, four-hour extravaganza. Made by Alex Gibney (who also made the provocative doc Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief), it was a lavish feting, built cleverly around the concert film of Sinatra's "final" performance in 1971.
It was made with the participation of Sinatra's estate. The music, the songs, the films and the stories were pored over by various people who knew him. Mostly they appeared off-screen as the focus was on the work of the man himself.
The documentary skipped lightly over Sinatra's alleged ties to organized crime and his on/off friendship with John F. Kennedy. But it has some bite in coverage of his relationships with women, and his temper. I can recall Lauren Bacall in it, saying, with matter-of-fact precision, "Frank was a womanizer. He wanted to be in the sack with everybody."
Some sanitizing is bound to be part of the heft of a centennial celebration and this weekend, CBS and The Recording Academy unite for a two-hour special.
Sinatra 100: An All-Star Grammy Concert (Sunday, CBS, City, 9 p.m.) is it and it's a tribute, including performances from Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood, Usher, Zac Brown, Harry Connick Jr., Celine Dion, Lady Gaga and Juanes. It also includes "rare archival footage narrated by the man himself."
Bing Crosby once said, "Frank Sinatra is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime. But why did he have to come in mine?"
At one point in time, people understood what Crosby meant. Sinatra was, for a time, simply called "The Voice" because of his gift for phrasing, and knack for coaxing a lyric around a melody line. It was his core gift.
One can imagine some of the listed performers in the CBS special doing a very good job with a Sinatra song. Others, no.
Alicia Keys you can file under "maybe." In advance, Keys pronounced: "My grandfather introduced me to Frank Sinatra. I love hearing his songs: the phrasing, the innocence, the subtle depth that knocks you out when you concentrate on the lyrics. And those arrangements! It brings me back to the lost art of 'the gentleman.' "
And there's the rub – the idea of Sinatra as "the gentleman" is far-fetched, these days. Through the perspective of the present there is something deeply unsavoury about Sinatra. For all the skill, he embodied much more. And what he embodies tends to creep people out today.
Celebrating Sinatra cannot be a celebration of his temper, his violence toward women, his instinctive, physical lashing out at people he disliked. The stories told about Sinatra in Paul Anka's memoir My Way would make your hair stand on end. While Anka says, "Frank Sinatra lived life more fully than anyone I've met before or since," that's nice, but not an actual endorsement of his life.
The songs, yes, for celebration. The singer, not so much.
Also airing this weekend
Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce (Sunday, Slice, 8 p.m.) returns for a second season. The gist of the episode is this: "Abby chooses between boyfriend, Will, and husband, Jake, while fielding a job offer from an online magazine called SheShe; Abby faces opposition from a rival editor at SheShe; Phoebe acts out in response to Kori's civil suit against her." And it's a lot more substantial than the gist suggests. Lisa Edelstein (Cuddy on House) plays Abby, a bestselling author of self-help books, who is separated from her husband and dating again. The humour in that is smart, sometimes cutting.