Knowledge? Entertainment? Just clearing the DVR? People watch to documentaries for lots of reasons. The other night, though, in need of some stress relief, I found a purposeful and centering calm nestled snugly between the credits of The Zen Of Bennett. Functionally a film documenting the behind the scenes action during the recording of Tony Bennett’s Duets II album, there are so many wonderful little moments to find along the edges that make the film, directed by Unjoo Moon, worth so much more than the mere sum of its parts.
We like to think that celebrities have their shit together, thanks in large part to their piles of money that can be thrown at any problem that comes their way, but it feels different with Bennett. Sure, the money and fame help, don’t get me wrong, but you watch him sitting in an art museum, where he’s been going to commune with the muse since he was a kid, and he’s just the happiest guy in the world. It’s the small pleasures, it would seem. Bennett was almost 85 when this film was recorded, well past the time when most people retire, but he comes off as genuinely energized not only by the youthful singers he’s paired with, but he seems to still be getting his rocks off on life itself. He sings because he wants to, and he does his art because he wants to, and it’s just fantastic to take in. Forget Tony Robbins, I want to get my personal motivation from Tony Bennett.
The singers who make the biggest impression on Bennett during recording sessions are Lady Gaga, with whom he’d go on to record a whole album of jazz standards, and Amy Winehouse, who passed away not long after singing “Body and Soul.” There are other youthful guests on the album who we see interact with Bennett, including Michael Buble, Carrie Underwood, John Mayer, and Norah Jones, but Gaga and Winehouse get the justifiably greater amount of screentime. They’re polar opposites in a way that becomes so profoundly evident in their interactions with Bennett. Winehouse is demure, wearing her insecurities on her sleeve about whether or not she’s measuring up to the task at hand. Bennett, her idol, is fatherly and supportive, having said earlier in the film, before she arrived, that he wanted to do whatever he could to help her get off drugs. Gaga on the other hand, comes in dressed like a Breathless Mahoney backup dancer, with confidence to spare. Bennett, a tested professional, has tools in his raconteur’s arsenal to get the best work from both of these different yet equally talented artists.
I just looked it up and, despite Bennett having written two autobiographies and a memoir (different things, apparently) across the past twenty years, only one has been turned into an audiobook, narrated by Joe Mantegna. After hearing Bennett regale every Duets guest with a separate little show biz story which feels both off the cuff and, at the same time, tailored specifically for them, all I want is to be able to recreate a sliver of what they must have felt hearing him say those things. You think Aretha Franklin has probably seen and heard it all? Not until Tony Bennett melts her down with a quick little anecdote about Ella Fitzgerald. All I’m saying is that an app called “Tony Bennett Stories” where you press a jitterbug-like single button and out of the speakers comes Tony to tell you about the time Rosemary Clooney did something fantastic in Las Vegas would be money in the bank is all I’m saying.
There’s a lot of talk about Quality in this film. Just casually tossed off mentions by Bennett about how it’s good to am for things to be of the highest Quality because things that are low quality and as such do not last. They’re not necessarily a purposeful through line I don’t think, but I couldn’t help but think about the ways that a similar approach to Quality flows through the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. If you haven’t read it, one character, the narrator, is driven insane trying to unwrap the koan of what defines the quality or inherent goodness of a thing. While the narrator of that story went a few steps too far and tumbled over their respective philosophical cliff, I think Bennett, with his gentle assertions spread throughout the film, has clearly come to terms with a way to quantify quality that pushed him in the other direction, towards one of inner peace.
We talked just a couple of weeks ago about how wonderful the elderly are, but Tony Bennett, in The Zen Of Bennett, goes so much farther above any expectation you could have for an older person challenging your perceptions of the deeper layers of life, work, happiness, and fulfilment. The film takes on its own Zen quality in fact, with pointedly meditative shots that linger and a focus that drifts from foreground to background. Far from a definitive story of Bennett’s life and work, Unjoo Moon’s documentary serves as a tidy little view into the contentedness that one man’s found while his decades long career comes to an end. We should all be so lucky.