Tribeca Film Festival Debut: The Zen of Bennett

At 85 years old, Tony Bennett’s standard of life on and off stage is simple. “I grew up in an era where everything was made with quality,” the sage quips in the opening scene of the aptly-titled film, “The Zen of Bennett.” He continues, “You should do every move that you make with quality. And the public rewards you for that.”

The public has lauded Bennett and his velvety vocals for over 70 albums since his 1952 debut. “The Zen of Bennett,” the brainchild of his own son, Danny Bennett, offers an intimate look at the making of Tony’s 2011 chart-topper, “Duets II.” The documentary debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, sponsored by American Express. In it, the accomplished singer and painter sprinkles out his life philosophy amid world travels, family affairs, and collaborations with stars like Natalie Cole, Michael Bublé, Aretha Franklin, John Mayer, Lady Gaga, and the late Amy Winehouse.Winehouse’s father, Gaga’s parents, Harry Belafonte, and Michael Moore were among the audience members who packed the Tribeca Performing Arts Center for the 84-minute premiere and panel with the doc’s filmmakers. Deb Curtis, VP of Events, Sponsorships, and Marketing for American Express told us how this extended access to the film is key to the Tribeca Film Festival experience.“We’ve been partnered with the Tribeca team for 10 years, so it’s really been a very long and amazing partnership,” Curtis explained. “Our role is to really put our cardmembers closer to great films and great independent film, and the diverse genres that are really represented here at the film festival. Another element that we do is have them hear directly from filmmakers on the stories behind the films. Our cardmembers are yearning for more and more insight behind the films that they love, so that’s really what we’re here to do.”We took full advantage of the AmEx treatment and heard from producers Danny Bennett and Jennifer Lebeau, director of photography Dion Beebe, and director Unjoo Moon on their experience capturing “The Zen of Bennett.”

Moon on capturing Tony in his element.

We really wanted to let the process unfold and for the material to be as organic as possible, while at the same time maintaining a visual style and a quality that we knew would best represent Tony and his work.

Beebe on balancing his film crew with Tony’s team of artists and musicians.

Certainly, the biggest challenge was always “How do we get a film crew into a recording studio where, first and foremost, Tony is recording an album?” It’s not just all about us. It was a matter of devising a plan that we could sort of photograph what we needed to get, maintain a style that told the story, and didn’t interfere with what Tony was doing, or what the other artists were doing.”

Tony on seeing the film for the first time during its Tribeca Film Festival premiere.

I'm thrilled about the fact that my family made this film, and it’s amazing to me how natural and creative and wonderful it is… These two great photographers [Moon and Beebe] here are the most comfortable people that I’ve ever performed with in my life. Not once did I say, “Why are they telling me to move again when we just did it.” It wasn’t like that. They just were effortless.

Danny, Tony’s son and manager, on framing the film around Tony’s credo.

That’s something that I’ve observed throughout my entire career. The world could be coming down, and Tony’s focused, and he’s in the zone. Thus, “The Zen of Bennett.”

Tony on working with Amy Winehouse during her last recording and her untimely death.

Either you got it or you haven’t got it, and if it doesn’t swing, you’re out of here… Amy had that gift. And I just think it’s so tragic. And more and more in my life, some of the greatest people I’ve ever met, tragically, were destroyed by drugs. I just wish that we would all, as American citizens, insist on legalizing drugs, so that it would be controlled, and get the underworld out of here.

Tony on one of his favorite contemporary artists.

“I’ve been in the business a long time, I don’t know anyone who’s more talented than Lady Gaga. She has the most beautiful voice. She sings — it’s [as] complete as Ella Fitzgerald. She can sing, she has that talent of knowing what to do, and she invents herself, practically everyday. I really feel that we’re never going to stop watching Lady Gaga because she’s one of the greatest artists I’ve ever met.”

The one duet Tony wish he would have done.

“The only one I regret not doing a duet with was Louis Armstrong… we did performances in Britain together. He taught all the jazz artists, right up to Miles Davis; he taught them how to play the right way. He invented swing, and hip hop, and whatever you want to call it next. You find out that Louis was the first one to do it.”

Check out the film’s trailer below, and make sure to purchase Bennett’s Duets II, available now.