"You want it for Christmas?" my wife asked, after spotting a small, full-color ad for this DVD package in our "National Post" newspaper. And while she shopped at Sears for a red dress yesterday, I dropped into the next-door Wal-Mart (ostensibly to see the new "Eagles" CD - "available exclusively, for under 12 dollars!"). And there it was: stacks and stacks of "Clint Eastwood Presents Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends TWO-DISC Special Edition" And well . . . I couldn't wait till Christmas to enjoy!
After my son put up our (artificial) tree -- as he always does -- and had strung the hundreds of (clear) lights . . . in preparation for his two children coming over today to decorate it (as only they can) . . . then we sat down to watch this show: 'Spellbinding,' is the word that springs to mind.
First things first: No performer in the history of American popular music has ever been better `celebrated' in a made-for-TV production than by this (2007) "American Masters" PBS special.
Lovingly produced -- with the highest conceivable professionalism -- by Academy Award-winning film director Clint Eastwood (narration by his friend and fellow Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins) this double-disc `treasure' provides more than two hours of terrific entertainment -- "for the whole family," as they used to say. I say it's `guaranteed' to stand up to repeated viewing. And though it contains not a word about Christmas, this will always be a happy `seasonal' association for me. No program has come closer to capturing the "magic" way in which Tony Bennett manages to appeal to each new generation of audiences!
I remembered seeing portions of the progam on the original PBS special (at the heart of this new package) earlier this year; but had already forgotten (or missed seeing) so many wonderful details - the sort you always see `the second time around.'
So many highlights! Where to begin?
Oh, let's start with the delightful film clips, from movie-musicals -- starring the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire -- all of them beautifully re-mastered in glorious sound and perfect color.
And the celebrity interviews! -- funny and fascinating . . . plus amazing clips from TV shows - maybe the best of which is Alec Baldwin's "Saturday Night Live" impersonation of Tony Bennett, as a talk-show "mirror-image" of the singer (thanks to an incredible make-up job that breaks up Tony (who compliments him on his `nose job' before they sing a duet whose every second word is "great!").
Those interviews, with Tony's celebrity admirers, are beautifully interwoven with excerpts from the singer's many "live" TV performances; included are some endearingly serious comments from otherwise funny-men, like Don Rickles and Mel Brooks.
Rickles deadpans that, "Frank was the King: Tony would be the first one to say it. Frank adored Tony: I think he thought, in his mind, that he could `pass the torch' to Tony, and he did. I think Tony was the last remnants of what Sinatra was all about."
Mel Brooks (was there ever a more expressive face?) tells us, "When I grew up I think my favorite singer was . . . a toss-up between Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby: They BOTH thrilled Frank singing, `I'll Never Smile Again') -- There was this little guy, `Sinatra' . . . and he kept getting better and better! And then . . . hot on HIS heels, was this other little Italian . . . Tony Benedetto. And HE was obviously the `heir apparent.' Maybe Sinatra was `King' . . . but Tony was always `Crown Prince'."
Immediately we see a clip of Sinatra, circa 1966 -- a live, color-TV broadcast - featuring a snippet of his (Count Basie Band) swing arrangement of "Fly Me to the Moon." That's followed by Tony Bennett's most recent "live" performance (with gorgeous, solo `rubato' jazz guitar accompaniment (available later, in its entirety, among 14 tracks comprising Disc 2 of this package: "TONY BENNETT'S CONCERT PERFORMANCE AT THE 2005 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL").
The distinguished voice of narrator Anthony Hopkins then provides some historical perspective, accompanying B&W photos of the "Sinatra and Benedetto families."
Hopkins says, in a voice-over, (he doesn't appear on camera) "Frank Sinatra has said that, what he finally hit upon - in his approach to singing - was that `one should pay attention to the Bel Canto, Italian school of singing.' This insight - among others - led to Frank's words of praise about Tony Bennett in LIFE magazine. Frank Sinatra said, `For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business - the best exponent of the song. He excites me when I watch him; he moves me. He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind - and probably a little more. There's a (real) feeling in back of it'."
On camera, Tony Bennett says, "And that is why I started this school - the `Frank Sinatra School of the Performing Arts.' He was my best friend in the whole world . . . and he was so wonderful to me through all the years: His `endorsing' me, changed my whole career by having everybody get interested in what I was doing."
Songwriter Alan Bergman -- who with wife Marilyn composed several Sinatra hits, beginning with "NICE `N' EASY" just before they were married, says: "I remember calling Tony -- Marilyn and I -- we called Tony after Frank had died, and we said: `Tony - you're responsible now!' (for the legacy). Tony is kind-of `synonymous' now, with `The Great American Songbook."
At select intervals (throughout the first DVD) we see Tony Bennett `alone together' with Clint Eastwood -- sitting alongside the piano, upon which - eventually -- Eastwood plays a few hesitant chords of accompaniment to one of Tony's early hits.
For those of us who've never heard either man speak, at any great length, one is struck by the sensitivity and the gentle intelligence displayed by two older men (one in his 80s, the other in his 70s) as they elicit insights and good humor from each other. Clearly, each man considers the other a genius in his own right: They listen carefully, with a quiet reverence - to each other's thoughts. It's a fascinating dialogue.
And what a delight to find that `interplay' in its entirety as the "Bonus Feature" on this DVD - 37 minutes of Clint & Tony at their reflective best, trading anecdotes about favorite actors, singers and jazz performers.
Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante are singled out for special praise, along with a `current musical genius' -- Stevie Wonder, now a good friend of Tony's. (They shared a 2006 GRAMMY award, for Bennett's best-selling "Duets" CD, Number 1 at Amazon.com for several weeks last year.)
Throughout the `special feature' extended dialog, Eastwood sits at the keyboard -- wearing a sage-colored golf shirt, his glasses folded and hanging from a shirt button; Tony -- seated to his right -- looks casually resplendent, in white dress-shirt and a golden-yellow jacket. Among their shared insights:
TONY: "A good example I tell all young musicians (about putting your heart into each-and-every performance) - I tell them that Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews when they did MY FAIR LADY - such a smash Broadway show! . . . Well they had to do it, like EVERY performance was `Opening Night.' That `flatness' (that wants to creep in) has to simply disappear . . . it has to be just like `The first time you've ever done it'."
CLINT: "Yeah that's an interesting analogy . . . because that IS the thing that astounds most people about `live' theatre: How do you do it? Day-in, day-out --- sometimes twice-a-day!"
TONY: (chuckles) "Yeah -- a little inhuman!" (he later recalls doing "seven shows in one day - from 10:00 in the morning till 10 at night!")
CLINT: `But you have to make it interesting for YOURSELF before it becomes interesting for the audience! And of course, as you performed at that venue last night, (Monterey Jazz Festival, September 17, 2005) "it was so spectacular!
"And something happened that I'd never seen before: You were singing about `Fly Me to the Moon,' and all of a sudden the moon comes out from behind the clouds (TONY laughs) - the full moon!! And suddenly the whole audience is just `ooh-ing and ahh-ing' -- and it was really a moment (for people) to talk about."
We're taken immediately, to that magic moment of the previous night's "live" performance: Tony looks up at the moon, as it suddenly emerges from a cloudy sky over Monterey, just as he sings the words, "Fly Me to the Moon." There's a collective gasp, and some woops of joy, from the enraptured audience - sharing in Tony's obvious delight at this happy `coincidence.' The "greatest living popular singer" grins a dignified grin . . . but keeps singing -- without missing a beat; as if to say, "Well, what can you expect, on a magic night like this?"
Share the magic, I say. Prediction: You will enjoy repeat viewings of this new `Gold Standard' for musical biography.