“The Zen of Bennett” captures octogenarian crooner Tony in the studio recording last year’s “Duets II” with a lineup of (mostly) much younger music stars. While the result is sure to appeal to the star’s fans, they may find this less-than-definitive portrait distractingly arty at times, while viewers attracted by such up-to-the-moment talents as Lady Gaga will wonder why the pic doesn’t bother providing a little more explanatory background about that old guy she’s singing with. Limited theatrical playdates starting Oct. 24 (with Netflix streaming available Nov. 12) should presage decent niche broadcast and disc sales.
Now 86, Bennett needs no introduction to the docu’s likely target audience, though perhaps he deserved more of one for the benefit of others. (Archival materials are sparingly deployed here, though it’s a treat to hear his first recording, a just-post-WWII “St. James Infirmary.”) Pic shows Bennett greeting many of his chosen partners on this all-standards disc in his studio of choice, while for others he travels (as far as Andrea Bocelli’s home in Italy).
Billed as “conceived, created and produced” by Bennett’s son Danny, “Zen” has a somewhat insular feel that both intrigues and frustrates. There are glimpses of temperament just frequent enough to seem pointed in their inclusion, yet too poorly contextualized to provide any actual insight. Helmer Unjoo Moon and d.p. Dion Beebe go for an odd, almost furtive visual presentation that constantly plays with image focus, likewise suggesting an extra dimension that fails to fully materialize, and that may strike some as simply mannered. These elements leave the documentary hanging somewhere between a glorified making-of album promo and a more in-depth portrait of the artist.
Those who have signed on to see the other names on display will be variably rewarded; while all guests show Bennett due respect, some swing-impaired talents seem to be here only because they’re current chart toppers. Others are seen but not heard (Willie Nelson), and still more on the album don’t appear here at all (Mariah Carey, Queen Latifah, k.d. lang, etc.).
Chemistry is an unpredictable thing, and there are surprises here both good and ill; one might not expect Lady Gaga, for instance, to be more at home trading vocal lines than Aretha Franklin. Most dramatic and poignant, perhaps, is Bennett’s gentlemanly patience with the since-deceased Amy Winehouse, who seems addled in the footage here as she contributes an eccentrically Billie Holliday-influenced take on “Body and Soul.”