(Red Envelope Entertainment/ Malpaso Productions/ Warner Home Video, 2007, Color, 87 minutes. MPAA Rating: Not Rated.)
If there is such a thing as a “benevolent universe,” then singing legend Tony Bennett is probably the strongest earthly evidence of such a metaphysical phenomenon. For over six decades, he has sung songs that break audiences’ hearts to pieces. But he’s also filled them with hope and joy, and the courage to reach their potential. A large part of it has to do with the warmth Bennett exudes and his positive outlook, which is evident in his ever-present smile.
In this recent documentary, originally produced as a PBS special, director Bruce Ricker takes us on a journey in word and song through the improbable life of this consummate entertainer, who’s attained—and kept—the highest esteem in his profession by staying true to himself and his passions. Fellow Renaissance man and jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood, whose Malpaso Company produced this film, vacates the director’s chair to sit alongside Bennett on the piano bench. Eastwood’s interviewing style is easygoing and laconic, letting the give-and-take of the conversation draw out Bennett’s story and reminisces. Over the course of the film, we come to know this unpretentious yet self-possessed man.
Like Eastwood, Bennett is strictly an American phenomenon. Born in 1926 to Italian immigrant parents, he grew up in Astoria, Queens, N.Y. He didn’t really get to know his father, who died when the boy Tony was ten. His mother was a seamstress who worked in New York’s garment district doing piecework, earning a penny per dress to support her family.
Looking back on his modest beginnings, Bennett remarks to Eastwood, “To think of where I started out, we grew up during the Depression. I really count my blessings every day. I’m very satisfied with my life. And it can only happen in this country. It’s amazing.”
Bennett’s second-wind turned a trying time in life into a mere speed bump.
The film follows him from his days as an art student at New York’s High School of Industrial Arts to his stint as a soldier in the Army during World War II. Shortly after war’s end, Bennett gets his big show-business break while performing in Pearl Bailey’s show in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was impressed and invited Bennett to sing in his own show at Manhattan’s Paramount Theater. At the time, the crooner was going by the stage name “Joe Barry,” but the comedian thought the name too plain sounding. Hope suggested shortening his birth name to fit on the marquee. Thus was Antonio Dominick Benedetto reborn as Tony Bennett.
In 1950, Columbia Records signed Bennett to a recording contract. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And what a history! The narrative structure of this documentary is built on Tony’s many hit tunes—not just the recorded performances, but also what they mean to him and to so many of his friends and admirers personally.
For Martin Scorsese, Bennett’s songs like “Rags to Riches” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” fit perfectly into the soundtrack of his acclaimed Mafia picture Goodfellas. To the director, the songs “were little dramas” that came from the soundtrack of his own life, growing up poor and Italian in 1950s New York City.
For lifelong friend and fellow singer Harry Belafonte, Bennett imbued the showstopper song “Just In Time” with a whole new meaning when he gave an impromptu performance during the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, organized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bennett often gave of himself freely for King’s protests. “I gravitate to someone who’s so courageous and realize that he’s going to go against the majority,” Bennett remembered. “But, he’s speaking the truth.”
Radio host Jonathan Schwartz, a standards expert on WNYC, discovered a key to the crooner’s character when he asked Bennett if he ever got sick of singing his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He recounted how Bennett explained that he never tired of performing the song that propelled him to superstardom in 1962:
That song has given Tony entry into castles, White Houses, opera houses, theatres everywhere, peoples’ homes, grand banquets. That song—there it is—those words and that sound, it’s written in his eyes. Entry to the world for Tony Bennett.
Gratefulness and optimism are underrated virtues, but they are the sources of what so many of his fans identify with in Tony Bennett—the fact that a hallmark of being true to one’s self is being comfortable in one’s own skin. Bennett wears his as effortlessly as his trademark silk neckties and tailored suits.
Joel Cox—who’s been Eastwood’s go-to editor ever since his 1976 action movie The Gauntlet—deftly cuts between many of Bennett’s song renditions at the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival and his earlier television appearances, ranging from the 1950s through the ’70s. While he has lost a little of the roundness in his bel canto tenor, these juxtapositions demonstrate how Bennett has matured in his phrasing and verbal storytelling, an art he learned studying such legends as Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra. Cox also intercuts the footage with classic performances from Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Dean Martin, which not only place Bennett in historical context but also in august company.
To grasp just how long Bennett has been maintaining the highest standards of musical interpretation, you need only watch the footage of his duets. They begin with Judy Garland in the early 1960s, move through Ray Charles in 1986, and conclude with an appearance on a 2006 “Saturday Night Live” broadcast with Christina Aguilera, in which the two singers—born more than fifty years apart—perform a convincing, energetic rendition of the Irving Berlin standard Steppin’ Out With My Baby.
It’s hard to believe that Bennett’s career had been on the ropes in the 1980s. Most other performers would have faded into oblivion, or sold out. But over a decade after losing his recording contract with Columbia, and stuck in the rut of being a Vegas headliner, Bennett turned to his son Danny, a successful business professional, to revive his career from the ashes. It’s an astounding story, how Danny Bennett “reinvented” his dad. “I said to him, what you do is very pure from an artistic point-of-view,” Danny recalls,
and, yes, it is a time when people are into rock-n-roll. But this whole notion that his music was of a certain generation, to me, you don’t tell a twelve-year-old kid, “you don’t listen to Beethoven.” You just got to expose them to great music and great art will speak for itself.
Danny’s stroke of genius was getting his father on MTV and performing with contemporary pop and rock artists such as Bono, Sting, k.d. lang, and Stevie Wonder. Bennett’s artistic second wind has, in retrospect, turned that trying time of his life into a mere speed bump. It’s one of the rare times that a great man has been reinvented simply by staying true to himself and his own artistic vision.
Hearing him sing was simply breathtaking.
One memory my wife and I will always cherish was in late August this year, when we saw Tony perform live at San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre as we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary a week early. Watching and hearing this master sing his heart out, backed up by his superbly talented jazz combo, bringing down the house song after song, was simply breathtaking. As we were leaving, my wife remarked that even though Bennett was about sixty feet away from us, for two hours she felt as though he had the whole audience over in his living room for an evening, “like family.”
That’s something that can’t be faked, and it’s not lost on anyone who’s ever seen Bennett perform. Actor Alec Baldwin observes this personal quality in Bennett, remarking in the film, “The audience has to believe that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. And there’s no one in this business who conveys that more effectively than Tony Bennett.”
Turn down the lights, make some martinis, curl up on the loveseat with your sweetheart, and watch this delightful motion picture. For an hour and a half, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.