Cool, Calm, Collected – Wonderful Warm Documentary on Tony Bennett Thrills


These days, “zen” is often used as shorthand for any guide to a discipline that advocates focus and not sweating the small stuff. But after watching “The Zen of Bennett” (as in famous singer Tony Bennett), the title is by far the most appropriate. Although we see a Buddha statue in the background only once, and although Mr. Bennett never speaks of spirituality in any overt way, he comes across as coolly invested in wisdom and Buddha nature. If only we could be this serene and talented when we hit 86 years old.

In this documentary, produced by Mr. Bennett’s son Danny and directed by Unjoo Moon with a series of dreamy, prismatic images, we follow Mr. Bennett as he travels across the States and over to Italy to record a series of duets with contemporary artists both young and established, from Carrie Underwood to Willie Nelson.

This is promotional material for an album, similar to Frank Sinatra’s gambit in his 1994 “Duets” album, no doubt. But it’s also a true behind-the-scenes story that refrains from whitewashing the creation of the album with a bunch of happy soundbites. We get to see the idiosyncrasies of each performer as they work with Mr. Bennett on a selection of American Songbook classics.

Mr. Bennett’s voice has aged, but in a good way. It sounds wise, comfortable, like how the scuffs and wear marks on a favorite chair bring back memories.

The singer has done well. He owns a fantastic apartment that overlooks that sea of green called Central Park. He wanders about MOMA sketching the classics and painting watercolors (many seen in the film). Apart from painting and singing, he says, he’s not much good at anything else. And he doesn’t consider himself as having worked a day in his life. It’s been all fun.

There’s a bit of history here too, about how Anthony Dominick Benedetto grew up in poverty in Queens and how luck helped him feed his family one Thanksgiving. Then how World War II shaped his pacifist stance. Mr. Bennett often volunteers these stories and anecdotes when sitting around with his bandmates, or trying to calm his starstruck duet partners’ nerves.

Mr. Bennett is not always calm. In an interesting but long sequence, he argues with a manager after a joint interview with John Mayer. Mr. Bennett is upset that Mr. Mayer has equated his music with an old generation; he wants to be seen as a singer for every age. It’s quibbling, but shows where Mr. Bennett sees himself and his legacy. There’s also grumblings with Andrea Bocelli, who keeps Mr. Bennett waiting too long in a hotel. All these things are handled in hushed, calm tones, which actually make them more serious.

Lady Gaga, in blue hair and a slinky dress, makes for the most surprising guest. In her own work she’s distant and more of a provocateur. Here’s she not just a fan, but belts out “The Lady Is a Tramp” with such conviction that she wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s musical alongside Ethel Merman or Betty Hutton.

‘The Zen of Bennett’
* * * *
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: None
Playing at: Arlington

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