'Sinatra' very good Preview: Two hours of clips of the great singer's great television specials add up to a great performance.

March 07, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The singer is standing there in his tux, snapping his fingers as the orchestra vamps. He brings the gleaming, hand-held microphone to his mouth and starts talking.

"Earlier this year, ladies and gentlemen, I had one of the greatest thrills of my life: I watched three men fly to the moon," he says.

Pause.

"And imagine their surprise when they found out I was there two nights ahead of them."

A-ring-a-ding-ding.

Oh, yeah, it's Mr. Rat Pack himself, Frank Sinatra, from a 1969 television special, and it's part of the knockout "Sinatra: The Very Good Years," airing on Public Television's "Great Performances" tomorrow night.

Sinatra glides from the cheesy, Las Vegas joke to "respectfully dedicating" the song he's about to sing to the "astronauts who made this 'Mission Impossible' possible." Could the tune be anything but "Fly Me to the Moon"? And could anyone else make it swing like Sinatra?

"Sinatra: The Very Good Years" -- which is culled from clips of his television specials during the 1960s and '70s -- has its kitschy, martini moments. But it's mostly Sinatra, the musician, and the music is mainly wonderful with a great singer still in or near his prime.

It opens with Sinatra in 1965 singing Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," and it just keeps getting better.

The range is magnificent. There's Sinatra in 1967 doing a version of Lerner and Loewe's "Get Me to the Church on Time" that opens with only a stand-up bass accompanying the singer. Listen to what Sinatra does with the lyric "ding-dong the bells are gonna chime," singing against the normal rhythm to create a double-time counter-beat that sets the song soaring.

One of the special's finest moments is a medley by Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim from 1967. Sinatra and Jobim are sitting in facing chairs on a stage lit by a single spotlight. Pearl gray cigarette smoke curls around Sinatra; Jobim caresses his guitar as they work their way through gentle, haunting bossa nova versions of "Quiet Nights," "Change Partners," "I Concentrate on You" and, of course, "The Girl From Ipanema."

Want more? How about Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald (circa 1967) doing the "The Lady Is a Tramp" or a very young Natalie Cole and Sinatra (1977) doing "I Get a Kick Out of You"?

Two things that surprised me as I watched the special and then watched it again, trying to double the pleasure:

First, I was reminded of what great musical specials network television used to do, as in the Judy Garland specials on CBS in the 1960s. It just took a little imaginative set design, staging and the right musicians.

Second, I was struck by the maleness of Sinatra even when he was well into middle age. Sinatra took me right back to the college locker room with his cocky body language and the way he has of tearing into a song until he's ravaged it.

Yeah, I know times have changed, and it's not cool for Sinatra to say, "Hey, that's why this chick is such a tramp" as he does in the middle of "The Lady Is a Tramp."

I suspect a feminist reading of Frank's "The Tender Trap" would not make for a glowing review either.

There is one sequence I have genuine concern about: Sinatra singing "Ol' Man River." Musically, it is one of Sinatra's most impressive moments in the show. But he sings some phrases in dialect, and when he sings, "Let me go 'way from the white man boss," you want to say: "Excuse me, Frank. You are white and you are known as the chairman of the board. So, what exactly are you trying to say here?"

The producers should have at least acknowledged through narration that he was singing in 1967 and that some might take offense to the use of dialect in this context.

That's Sinatra, the man of his times, and that's a topic for another time. "Sinatra: The Very Good Years" is about the music, and ain't it grand?

Sinatra special

What: "Sinatra: The Very Good Years"

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

When: Tomorrow night, 7 to 9

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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