Tony Bennett’s sessions with Bill Evans represent some of the greatest jazz vocal recordings ever—period. His track record with movies has been a bit spottier. Remember The Oscar from 1966, with Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer? The Academy certainly didn’t. He has had better luck with documentary filmmakers looking to celebrate his artistry and longevity. By and large, Unjoo Moon does exactly that with The Zen of Bennett (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.
There is no question Bennett is a survivor. He has continued to attract new fans in part through the high concept duets he recorded with younger artists from a variety of genres. A good part of Zen gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at his Duets II sessions. However, it is not always a day in the park. Bennett’s vanity is clearly bruised when John Mayer innocently tells him how much his parents love his music. Considering how long he has been around, the crooner should have been delighted Mayer’s grandparents weren’t the ones to introducing him Bennett’s music.
By way of a disclaimer, let’s just say I know a whole lot of musicians and have heard one or two stories and leave it at that. Be that as it may or may not be, Moon deserves credit for letting the pricklier side of Bennett peak through occasionally. Considering how many people with the Bennett name were involved with the production, she probably produced the most balanced portrait possible.
The chart-topping guest stars are a mixed bag, but Michael Bublé probably comes out looking the best, explaining how has adopted Bennett’s old school approach for his own recordings. Conversely, it is difficult to watch the footage of a visibly unstable Amy Winehouse in what would be her final recording session, paired up with the old master. Even though it features the most sympathetic and supportive Bennett viewers ever see in the film, its inclusion still feels almost exploitative.
While Zen captures Bennett springing some very last minute changes on his musicians, we do not hear very much from them (and they certainly do not talk to any former sidemen). Tragically, Bill Evans is long gone as well, but Bennett does speak of their recordings as some of his favorites.