The Zen of Bennett: Film Review

Zen of Bennett Still - H 2012
John Cheuse

Zen of Bennett Still - H 2012

Friendly doc offers plentiful guest stars but only one perspective on the singer's career.

Producer Danny Bennett follows his dad Tony through recording sessions as the singer nears his 85th birthday.

One of the last crooners of his age mulls his charmed life in Unjoo Moon's The Zen of Bennett, an amiable doc that's less fawning than one might expect of a film "conceived, created and produced by" the subject's son Danny Bennett. Fans will love its intimate mood and class-act portrayal of its subject; Dion Beebe's cinematography boasts the expected polish, but the film will likely be most popular on small screens.

Viewers are advised to ignore the silly name of the film, which has nothing to do with Buddhism or spirituality. Even the dumbed-down usage of "zen" as synonymous with "inner peace" isn't wholly apt here, as we occasionally witness the singer's frayed edges: Worried that John Mayer is calling him old in an interview, Bennett spends a few agitated minutes repeating the screw-demographics credo "I sing to the whole family."

Moon follows Bennett through a campaign to please the nation's grandkids, middle-aged folks and oldsters with a single album: For last year's Duets 2 CD, he performed standards with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Mayer and Lady Gaga. We observe many of the sessions, some of them smoothly professional (Norah Jones) and others mildly problematic: There are "too many chiefs" trying to work out the harmony line Michael Bublé will sing; traveling fatigue and underpreparedness threaten a session with Andrea Bocelli.

Lady Gaga seems to get the most out of the project, swooning over the dapper star and tearing into "The Lady is a Tramp" with him; other collaborators have a hard time finding common aesthetic ground. Most involving is the Abbey Road session with Amy Winehouse, whose difficulties settling on a way of singing "Body and Soul" are graciously diagnosed by Bennett: Like some of the greatest singers, he says, she's "ready to take chances" to find an adventurous delivery. (Later in the film, which is dedicated to Winehouse, he comments sadly on her death.)

In between recordings, Moon often conjures an after-hours mood, listening to Bennett chat with friends and family in shadow-filled studios. There are lots of half-anecdotes about onetime collaborators Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans and the like, but very little straightforward autobiography. The film sometimes has the flavor of a top-shelf TV commercial, pairing images of Bennett in repose with voiceover in which he delivers observations and life lessons. (Sample: "Life's a gift, that's how I look at it.") The strongest unifying theme is one of self-presentation: Even in a studio whose AC is underperforming, Bennett is reluctant to remove his tie.

Production Company: Benedetto Films
Director: Unjoo Moon
Producers: Danny Bennett, Jennifer Lebeau
Executive producers: Danny Bennett, Ted Sarandos
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Editors: Wyatt Smith, Katharine McQuerrey
No rating, 86 minutes