To accompany his lustrous "Duets" CD, perennial crooner Tony Bennett recruited some first-rank talent behind and before the cameras to help him produce this remarkable TV special to commemorate his 80th birthday. It is at once a throwback to the network variety specials from the 1960's and 70's (before pay-cable rendered them obsolete) and a reinvention of the format incorporating biographical elements within the context of mini-video performances. The result aired on NBC earlier this week as an hour-long special. Without commercials, the program scarcely runs forty minutes, but it remains a superbly crafted showcase for a timeless singer. Thanks to Rob Marshall's innovative conception and immaculate direction, the show follows a roughly chronological timeline of Bennett's career with nine starry-eyed duets connected by brief snippets of his professional milestones.
Things start on a high note with Bennett in an empty theater singing Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" joined by a mellifluous-sounding Barbra Streisand, his most accomplished partner for the evening. In a jazz nightclub setting, he is surrounded by the acrobatic Tony Bennett Dancers and swings though "Sing, You Sinners" with a confident John Legend. In a recording booth at Columbia Studios, Bennett sings his first hit, "Because of You" accompanied by smoky vocals from k.d. lang and a languorous trumpet solo by Chris Botti. Visually, my favorite part of the program is the black-and-white recreation of the 1960's-style variety show complete with dancers in sailor tops and Capri pants. In this segment, Diana Krall joins Bennett on a finger-snapping "The Best Is Yet to Come" followed by a sonorous version of "The Shadow of Your Smile" given a samba-accented makeover by Columbian rock singer Juanes.
The inevitable Vegas sequence features a bevy of feather-fanned showgirls. In this milieu, Bennett is joined by Elton John on a jaunty "Rags to Riches", by new-jack crooner Michael Bublé on a swinging "Just in Time" (whose Dean Martin-style behavior may rankle the more feminist-minded), and finally by a surprisingly stationary Stevie Wonder leaning heavily on his melisma on his own "For Once in My Life" (which includes his trademark harmonica interlude). To show his popularity with the current crop of chart-toppers, Bennett is joined by a retro-styled Christina Aguilera and the dancers in full Fosse mode on "Steppin' Out". It all ends appropriately with a shimmering solo of Bennett's signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco".
Providing the spoken interludes between the performances are Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bruce Willis, John Travolta and Robert DeNiro. At about 45 minutes in total, the extras on the DVD actually last longer than the special itself. They start with a 2 1/2-minute trailer and go right into footage of the dancers rehearsing their four production numbers. What follows is an extensive making-of featurette which features interviews with Marshall, choreographer John DeLuca and other key members of the creative staff interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage.