Smooth crooner, Tony Bennett was born Anthony Dominick Benedetto. But his first name should’ve been Larry for the saying, “Happy as”. The living legend has had one beautiful life and it shows all over his smiling face: the 60 years in the biz, 70+ albums, awards, number ones and absolutely no signs of slowing down. He admits to feeling very privileged and says: “I’ve never worked a day in my life”.
For Bennett’s 85th birthday he got perhaps the best gift of all. He became the oldest living artist to debut at number one in the US with his Duets II album. The documentary, The Zen Of Bennett takes in the creative process for this record with its fly-on-the-wall style nature capturing some absolute zingers and colourful anecdotes from an almost Yoda-like Bennett who is always quick with a smile and a story.
Bennett’s manager and son, Danny Bennett, originally thought up the idea. The junior Bennett wanted a definitive film about his papa and while Unjoo Moon’s documentary is not exhaustive; it does offer some great insights into this enduring and formidable force. The focus is on where it counts- some first-person discussion and pearls of wisdom about family, music, art and philosophy.
So what do we learn? Well, Bennett is a proponent and living embodiment of quality. It’s no surprise that he’s come from an era of it, i.e. a time where music and objects were well made and built to last. Today this seems evident in Bennett’s silver-fox hair, immaculate suit and his polished black – not brown – shoes. He is rather set in his ways but on the flipside this means he knows exactly what he wants. He likes recording live with his collaborators in the same studio, performing together and quickly with Mr. B very much calling the shots.
We also learn that Bennett is still studying and learning at the age of 85. The guy professes to be a lifelong student and wants to keep constantly bettering himself. He admits that he can only sing and paint (but he can also do a mean sketch) and it’s a fact that he is a perfectionist and a hard-taskmaster (on himself and others) and this shows by the continual honing of his craft.
His collaborators include: Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, Norah Jones and a blue-haired Lady Gaga. It is also interesting to see him work with young guns like Michael Bublé and John Mayer. Bennett feels like he breaks down the demographic barriers and sings to the whole family. It’s a point Bennett tries to hit home when Mayer attempts to pigeonhole the elder because his mother is a fan.
But perhaps the most important collaboration shown here is with Amy Winehouse. It would prove her last recorded performance. Before the meeting Bennett is seen telling his minders about her drug and alcohol problems and that he’s gonna tell her to “Slow down”. When they do record – at Abbey Road studios, no less – Wino is extremely skittish, a bundle of nerves and quite possibly under-the-influence. Suddenly Bennett turns into her old man, putting her at ease by telling her a quick story about Dinah Washington. In response Winehouse offers the chilling: “She died so young. She was only 40”.
The Zen Of Bennett is an uplifting tale about an Italian-American who grew up among the workers in Manhattan and made good, so much so that he’d sell millions of records and collaborate with artists young and old, the starry-eyed and his peers. With the self-described “friendliness” and “simplicity” of a two-track machine, Bennett’s music – a combination of pop, old standards and jazz that swings and shuffles with ease – fills the room as much as his large and charismatic presence. So ultimately, this doco shows a passionate and driven performer and a consummate professional with a still-silken croon. And it shows it really is a wonderful world because of you…
Review score: 3.5 stars
Originally published on 11 June 2012 at the following website: http://www.theaureview.com/sydney/sounds-on-screen-sydney-film-festival-2012-review-the-zen-of-bennett-ctc
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