This unexpectedly downbeat hour-long cinema verité-style Swedish film (made in 1973 but shelved until 1975) documents pop duo Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s residency at The Riviera Hotel. It instantly entranced me with its opening travelogue footage of early seventies Las Vegas in all its garish splendor. Filmed from a car window, we pass Vegas Vic the iconic neon cowboy followed by tantalizing peeks at the old-school mid-century casinos (mostly now long demolished): The Golden Nugget. The Sands. Caesars Palace. The Mint. Judging by one billboard, Sinatra’s friend and former leading man Elvis Presley is also in town, starring at the Las Vegas Hilton. But the tone is surprisingly wistful and suffused with melancholy from the start. One of the first things you hear is Sinatra’s voice complaining, “I wanna go home. I wanna go home to LA.”
Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas is ultimately a contemplation on the cruel whims of show business, capturing Sinatra and Hazlewood on a downturn. With their heady hit-making days of the mid-sixties (heralded by the tough, sassy “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” in 1965) behind them, they are now considered passé and obligated to hustle as a nostalgia act. (Sinatra has recalled perceptively and without bitterness in the past about how in the late sixties, youth culture tastes shifted towards a preference for “serious” rock bands, making go-go booted girl singers in general and Sinatra’s brand of kitschy pop instantly obsolete. Alongside the disparate likes of Bobbie Gentry, Serge Gainsbourg and Yma Sumac, Hazlewood and Sinatra were among the acts rehabilitated in the nineties “loungecore” movement when their back catalogue was reissued on CD. They’ve been a hip reference point ever since).
Their names may be displayed in lights and they’re headlining at the glittering high-end Riviera, but the film doesn’t make a Las Vegas residency appear glamorous. Nor is it particularly lucrative. Choreographer Hugh Lambert (Sinatra’s handsome and supportive husband, who is producing and directing her Riviera revue) confides that - initially at least - mounting the whole enterprise is so expensive it’s a money-losing venture for them. (The implication is that performing in Vegas will put Sinatra back on the map). Even Sinatra’s two bodyguards admit they are being paid peanuts for this gig.
The focus shuttles between performance footage and backstage scenes of the musicians and entourage relaxing pre-and post-show in Sinatra’s ritzy green-and-white dressing room. They kvetch over cigarettes and beer about the indifferent audiences who talk over the songs, hostile reviews and The Riviera’s jaded and uninspired house band. Sinatra’s between song patter onstage is surprisingly negative. She delivers a diatribe about how when she first began recording in the early sixties, people sniped that her surname bestowed her with an unfair advantage and guaranteed success. But all of her pre-“Boots” singles flopped, she snaps, so clearly it was the songs that mattered, not her family connections. Then she recalls how collaborating with songwriter and producer Lee Hazlewood changed her fortunes, resulting in a string of hits - except then he “abandoned” her to relocate to Sweden. Following that introduction, Hazlewood joins her for some duets. For connoisseurs of Lee and Nancy’s sublime “country exotica” oeuvre, these performances, including “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, “Did You Ever?” “Summer Wine”, “Jackson” and “Arkansas Coal” (so hushed and dramatic it’s almost performance art) offer the documentary’s highlights.
“Psychedelic cowboy” Hazlewood gets a solo spot during the set (presumably while Sinatra changes costumes). Clad in double denim leisure wear, Hazlewood somehow looks even more seedy sans his trademark retro porn star ‘tache. His strange charisma is nicely captured as he croons a finger snappin’ rendition of the jazz standard “She’s Funny That Way.” At the end he ad libs “She’s kinda squirrelly that way. She’s kinda goofy that way. She’s kinda Nancy that way …” Sinatra herself is diminutive and doll-like. Backstage, she seems exhausted. Onstage, she’s luminous. At one point, we watch Sinatra seated before her dressing room mirror dreamily teasing and then meticulously smoothing her mane of golden hair. Nancy Sinatra was never more beautiful.
/ This candid shot of Sinatra chilling with "gal pals" Liza Minnelli and Goldie Hawn was clearly taken in the same Riviera dressing room /
Watch Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas here.