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They've found his heart

Documentary captures seminal moments of Tony Bennett's career, with nary a mention of the lean times.

September 12, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

It's hard not to love Tony Bennett -- it would be like hating enthusiasm, or disdaining laughter. The singer, who turned 81 in August and is arguably, oddly, in the prime of his career, is a kind of personified argument for life itself and the deserving subject of a ragged yet invigorating new PBS "American Masters" documentary, "Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends," co-produced by and featuring Clint Eastwood as an interviewer. (Eastwood also plays a little jazz piano as the documentary gets underway, though, unfortunately, not behind Bennett.)

The film, directed by Bruce Ricker (who also directed an earlier "American Masters" on Eastwood, as well as documentaries on Kansas City jazz and guitarist Jim Hall), is a bit of a distracted ramble but satisfying from moment to moment (and full of music). Ricker will occasionally let his commentators run off on tangents and then throw in a clip to help them on their way -- a digression on the artistry of Jimmy Durante, for instance, seems to have been left in merely not to lose Eastwood's Durante impression. (The actor is endearingly relaxed, even goofy, throughout.) At the same time, there is something to be said for not trimming the fat that lends flavor.

The conceptual underpinning of last year's Rob Marshall-directed, Emmy-nominated "Tony Bennett: An American Classic" was that Bennett's career described an incidental history of television. (Bennett and Christina Aguilera are coincidentally scheduled to reprise their "Steppin' Out" duet on Sunday's Emmys telecast.) The current film offers proof that the career was not only recorded but shaped by TV. There are clips reaching back into the early '50s, and forward to recent appearances on the Tony Awards (no relation) and "Saturday Night Live," on which the singer appeared alongside Alec Baldwin, doing a hilarious, pitch-perfect Bennett imitation.

He was a guest on the first-ever Johnny Carson-hosted "Tonight Show" and many times thereafter -- he's seen there with pianist Bill Evans, a duet that was crucial in Bennett's conversion from pop to jazz singer. He turns up on "The Grand Ole Opry" (with his Hank Williams cover, "Cold, Cold Heart"), on the sitcoms of Danny Thomas and Doris Day, Judy Garland's variety show and "Playboy After Dark," where his corny old Columbia A&R man, Mitch Miller, accompanies him on oboe. And it was his 1993 "MTV Unplugged" appearance (not shown here) that put the seal on his commercial rebirth and won him new pan-generational fans who have kept him not only working but also relevant in a way that even Frank Sinatra couldn't manage in later years.

Although Bennett has had his low points -- from 1979 to 1986 he was without a record contract, he's had two failed marriages and almost died in the late '70s from an overdose of cocaine -- "The Music Never Ends" scants them in favor of celebrating the singer and the man. ("I was makin' the mistake of spendin' more money then I was makin' " is about as detailed and dark as it ever gets.)

The point here is love, a word Bennett holds for at least 12 measures singing "Ol' Devil Moon" out front of the Count Basie Band. The pastiche standard that Baldwin-as-Bennett sings in the "SNL" clip gets him to a T, a joyful noisemaker: "I love things that are great/Good things are fantastic."

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'American Masters: Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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