Alex Gibney on his Sinatra documentary, “All or Nothing at All”

Almost a century ago, Francis Albert Sinatra sat on the stoop outside a no-frills bar, waiting for his dad.

In those days, he was a kid singing for coins, Sinatra says in the sweeping two-night, four-hour HBO film Sinatra: All or Nothing at All.


We go to Hoboken, N.J., to meet filmmaker Alex Gibney, who settles into Moran’s, that neighborhood bar, largely unchanged over the years. It’s a frigid morning in the one-square-mile city of squat brick buildings and mixed cultures.

What intrigues Gibney is how Sinatra’s life mirrored the American dream.

“To me it was The Great Gatsby,” Gibney says. “The all-American story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Sinatra was born Dec. 12, 1915, to Dolly, a midwife and abortion provider, and Marty, a boxer, bar owner and firefighter.

“We are sitting here in Hoboken and he made it across the river,” Gibney says, referring to Manhattan. “It’s all about ambition and he’s the guy who did it.”

He did it his way — relying on grit and that velvet voice.

“I liked the idea of Sinatra as a storyteller,” Gibney says, explaining how he uses songs from Sinatra’s first retirement concert as chapters to frame his life. “That’s the great thing about his songs. He tells stories in three-minute songs. That’s where the appeal is. I started with telling his story. Here is a guy who dominated American culture for four decades.”

A fun clip from Anchors Aweigh shows Sinatra matching Gene Kelly step for step. Kelly had told Sinatra that he’s a great singer but must learn to move. He warned, “It will be a lot of hard work.” “Great, when do we start?” Sinatra responded.

Sinatra took lessons on enunciating when singing. His élan — a glass of Jack Daniel’s in one hand, a cigarette in the other — made him appear laid-back, but he was like a shark, especially during his ascent.

“All the time I was with Harry [James, the bandleader], I kept thinking of the next step,” Sinatra says.

Clips show bobby-soxer fans screaming until they faint.

“He was the first Elvis,” Gibney says. “He’s the first guy people went nuts for — Swoonatra!”

The film artfully meshes the skinny, cocky kid from Hoboken and the older, solid man. Along the way, we meet the wives through terrific snapshots, including one of a 1934 couple splashing in the Long Branch, N.J., surf. Nancy Sinatra, his first wife, still going strong at age 97, recalls that their first conversation was over a manicure she gave him.

Only the first two hours of the documentary were available by deadline, but the film doesn’t mention Ronan, the son Sinatra reportedly had with Mia Farrow, long after their divorce. Gibney just smiles when asked about Ronan. Gibney had access to the family vaults through Sinatra’s first family.

What is telling is that Sinatra stayed friends with ex-wives. Second wife Ava Gardner called him “good in the feathers” and said “he reeked of sex.” Sinatra was a standup friend, often paying hospital bills for broke pals.

After steeping himself in the music, the legend and the man, what impressed Gibney most?

“His determination and ambition,” Gibney says. “I didn’t really appreciate that when I started — what a great storyteller he was in songs. If you sit down and really listen, it’s a whole other experience. And then it is very understandable why Sinatra was Sinatra.”

Sinatra: All or Nothing at All airs on HBO April 5-6 at 8pm ET/PT.