It's film recorded decades ago that's been languishing in the Sinatra family vault, untouched for nearly half a century. Now it's been restored and enhanced for a new live show that opens in a few weeks. Correspondent Charlie Rose reports.
In the film, Sinatra is in full roar, at the very height of his creative powers. It's a treasure trove of performances no one has ever seen.
But where, when and why were these films made?
"He was a visionary, and he knew that if you wanted to record these performances, this is the way you needed to do it, with 35mm film," says James Sanna, the New York producer who started the search for Sinatra films.
He knew Sinatra had done a TV series in the late '50s. But what he didn't know was that Sinatra shot something extra.
"Almost every other television show that was filmed during the late '50s was using a technology called kinescope, which is low-grade, out of focus, mono. Frank knew that wouldn't stand up to the test of time," says Sanna.
"What he did, at his own expense, he had a lockdown 35-millimeter camera actually shooting his performance as he stared right into the camera."
In all, Sinatra recorded over 60 songs on film during the 1957-58 season.
"As far as we know, he would take the films home and put them in his closet," says Sanna.
Actually, they were somewhere else. And Sanna hired film restorer Keith Robinson to investigate: "The only place we knew to look was in the Sinatra archive, so I went into their vault."
A storage building managed by the Iron Mountain Company in Hollywood is home to the Sinatra family archives. And it echoes the Cold War of the '50s - lots of gates and locked doors. In fact, you need two keys turned by two people to get in the vault, just like the drill for launching a nuclear missile.
Inside, Robinson found a bunch of unmarked cans, with very little labeling. "I popped open the first can, and the waft of vinegar came out," says Robinson. "Everybody was going, 'What's that smell?'"
The smell was a sign that the film had deteriorated over time, and some of it had, but not enough to prevent Robinson and his team from repairing it.
The films were work prints, copies of the original negative film that could not be located. Robinson examined about 150 reels - all were covered with scratches, editor's pencil marks, even adhesive tape across Sinatra's face.
"I actually manage to reveal his face by removing the tape physically," says Robinson.
The film was then put through various machines, both low-tech and high-, and what emerged was Sinatra in gorgeous digital black and white.
"We figured out what needs to be done to bring it back to its full glory," says Robinson, who knew that he was restoring a part of lost history. "This is some of the best performances Frank Sinatra ever gave. And it's recorded in about the best quality that could ever be had … and we've been able to really capture everything that was intended to be preserved by Frank Sinatra in '57 and '58."
On the films, Sinatra is accompanied by only a few musicians off in the distance.
"When you hear him singing, it's incredibly intimate," says Robinson. "I mean, you're just captivated by the guy, and you don't really get that listening to, you know, watching a DVD or watching TV. It is just him, and him singing."
A full orchestra, conducted by longtime Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle, was added later.
Seen in context, these films were made at a time when Sinatra truly had the world on a string. It was after his messy divorce from Ava Gardner, after he'd temporarily lost his voice and nearly his sanity, and after the birth of the Rat Pack and the so-called Swingin' Sinatra.
It was also after he had turned his life around, as he later admitted in an interview with Walter Cronkite: "I think I was tired. It's not an excuse; it's a fact, and I was traveling constantly and just doing all kinds of work. When I was ready and I'd had enough rest, or I took time to have the cobwebs blown out of my head, I went back to work."
And the work he went back to was some of the finest he'd ever done. Longtime radio host and Sinatraphile Jonathan Schwartz knows these were very good years indeed: "It's absolutely wonderful because it is Sinatra singing these songs, wonderful songs, one right after the other, at his very best."
"This was the most electrifying performer short of the Stones that you're likely to find," adds Schwartz. "And I put him on the Stones level, because he could create that kind of excitement. And even in the subtle benign Eisenhower way of the '50s, just this business was terribly exciting."
Those film cans also contained about a dozen strange, tongue-in-cheek essays by Sinatra. Here's an example of one on life and love and suicide: "Now, if you've been clobbered by love, it isn't cricket to take the gas, you know? And dangling by your necktie is against the rules too. And never make hors doerves with the ant paste. And by all means, keep off those tall buildings. Furthermore, don't go near any tall buildings. In fact, jump only when the phone rings."
The essays and the songs form the heart of a show called, "Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way," scheduled to open in two weeks at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
The films have been rotoscoped, a process that removes Sinatra's dated backgrounds. These colorized and enhanced images will be projected onto huge screens, and a live orchestra will replace the recorded music.
For singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli, a featured performer in the Radio City show, working with the music of Frank Sinatra was an opportunity he couldn't pass up: "When Sinatra sings a song, you feel he believes it. He believes that you're going to get on a plane and fly away with him. He believes that it's a quarter to three. Those things are etched in stone."
What made it better than good? "The actual sound of the voice is different than anybody," says Pizzarelli. "I mean, there's something about that, something in the cigarettes and Jack Daniels that created this great sound in him."
"This discovery means that a whole other generation of people will be able to appreciate Frank Sinatra for the performer that he was," adds Robinson. "And that means something because you're preserving a cultural icon."
And maybe, by making these films, that's what Frank Sinatra had in mind all along. He's been dead five years. And he opens in New York in two weeks.