Most of Tony Bennett’s family, Lady Gaga’s parents, Amy Winehouse’s parents and even Harry Belafonte were on hand for the premiere of “The Zen of Bennett” on Monday night, making a one-show-only bow at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was a temperate all-ages event, but it's fine if it wasn't too flashy: “Conceived, created, and produced by his son,” the documentary was what Danny Bennett described as a “love letter” to his 85-year-old father.
The 84-minute portrait covers the period during which Bennett collaborated with more than a dozen popular artists for his “Duets II” album, his most commercially successful full-length studio album in his 70 years performing. While it tries to encompass a lot of personal history – like his dad’s origins in Podàrgoni, Italy, or his front-lines experience with death in the service during WWII – most of Bennett’s “Zen” unfolds like an archival, of-the-moment record of Bennett, Octogenarian.
The singer recounts little stories told to him by Duke Ellington or zingers from Fred Astaire, as he shrewdly negotiates tempos with the band and amps up his other passion and pasttime, painting. His “I remember…” moments were balanced out with the minor trifles of the modern music business: like an older family relative, Bennett would repeat himself in order to get a joke about his tie to land. He shows cranky impatience when Andrea Boccelli keeps him waiting and when Michael Buble vocally steps on his toes. He'd always wanted to record duets with Louis Armstrong but never got to.
In one scene, Bennett haggles with Danny and his other handlers when he felt slighted by perpetual mid-careerist John Mayer, who made some comment about his mother’s admiration for the multi-generational star. But even before moment unfolded, I couldn’t but help to think to myself, “Man, my dad’s gonna love this movie.”
It’s not that “The Zen of Bennett” isn’t for me, or my generation. It’s not that Bennett doesn’t have a grip on younger generations, because he does. “Zen” is built around an entertainer whose ageless talent for ageless songcraft was discovered and prospered in a different era in the biz. Whoever said “yes” to helping complete “Duets II,” they agreed to participate in making records in that same old way – live, together in a studio, with Bennett calling the shots. The young men would try to bro-down with Bennett, while women like Lady Gaga, Norah Jones and Carrie Underwood would nothing less than swoon, expressing their admiration by touching their hair and their faces. The oft-hyped collaboration between Bennett and the drug-ailed Amy Winehouse offered the most stunning disparity, of her nervous tics, bubbling admiration and hobbling gait; and of his cool, statesman-like awe and his shuffling steps to the mic.
Bennett’s handle on the material is as evident on the album as it is in the movie. What the viewer gets from the flick, however, is the additional fly-on-the-wall view of age and aging in the arts, with one of the most beloved entertainers worldwide. The singer’s children make multiple appearances in the film, as he works with many of them in his career, giving Bennett room to boast about his own family legacy as much as his creative one. His team would fill him in on the young stars that would stride into his studio, and in turn, he’d provide only the most accommodating, kindest words to their talent. It was all very classy, a little nepotistic, and a persuasive, gentle argument for love ongoing, as Bennett climbs in years.
After the movie played, Bennett took the stage with Danny, “Zen” director Unjoo Moon and others responsible for making the film. As per usual, he gushed about working with Lady Gaga, calling her one of “the greatest singers ever.” He applauded Winehouse, in front of the late singer’s family, applauding her “got it or you don’t” ability to sing jazz and improvise. But then, minutes later, made an curiously passionate plea for the legalization “of all drugs.”
After that, he was asked by an audience member if he would ever work with Britney Spears. “No,” Bennett dryly replied, “I don’t know what she does.” Coming from Bennett, you can’t tell if he meant that as a sarcastic commentary on the state of pop music or if he quite literally doesn’t know what one of the best-selling artists of this generation does. Coming from his world, maybe it doesn’t really matter.
Netflix has bought the rights to "The Zen of Bennett," and will make it available soon.