‘Surviving active service in World War 2 and battle fatigue, as it was known then, he became a world famous watercolourist, a dedicated pacifist and a mentor of young talent and cut a track with Amy Winehouse in the month before her death. Now eighty-five, he still sings in a suit and a tie. He comes from poor beginnings, paints as well as Degas, and puts across a song more skilfully than any man now living with the possible exception of Harry Connick Junior. Let’s make him welcome, ladies and gentlemen, Antonio Benedetto, also known as Tony Bennett.’
This speech does not occur in The Zen of Bennett but it could have. What a wonderful backstage movie, of a man whose motto is to always dress up and seize the moment and ‘never sing a cheap song’. Conceived and produced by Danny Bennett, his manager/son, directed by Unjoo Moon and shot by the Oscar laureate Dion Beebe, both Australians, in glimmering sunset yellows and reds like the great man’s paintings, and edgy muttering studio rehearsals overheard by an always moving camera, it co-stars, as they co-record his latest Duets album, Lady Gaga (‘The Lady Is A Tramp’), Willy Nelson, Aretha Franklin (and the remembered ghost of Ella Fitzgerald, godmother of his daughters); and, magically and sadly, Amy Winehouse, whom he later mourns, singing admiringly beside him, besotted by him, poignantly, gustily, elegiacally, ‘Body And Soul’.
He outlives her, of course. He seems immortal, with a weathered Roman-emperor’s face, very similar to Christopher Plummer’s, agelessly absorbing the entire known world and, like many a survivor of war, thinking every day a radiant gift and retelling its colours and blooms on canvas and parchment. Love is our obligation, he says, forgiveness, joy, and he truly believes it, and in his singing, with its glides and husky shifts of pleasured sadness, hymns and hails and paints it with his every breath.
More Mexicans have died in the drug wars since 2008 than Australians in World War 2. One such soul inhaled into this maelstrom is Laura Guerrerro (Stephanie Sigman), poor-born beauty contestant of Bala, a seaside resort, like a downmarket Sorrento, near the US border who survives a shoot-out in a dance club, approches a bent cop (Noe Hernandez), is kidnapped, recruited, raped and ket loose to become, very briefly, Miss Bala (the film’s title) and made the honey-trap of the loathesome general Duarte, warns him, survives another shoot-out and is paraded before the news cameras as a criminal mastermind.
This is utterly persuasive and wonderfully directed (by Gerardo Naranjo from a screenplay by himself and Mauricio Katz), poundingly suspenseful evocation of grimy blood-splashed familiar territory which Get The Gringo, Breaking Bad and No Country For Old Men have lately explored, more accessible and female-friendly than any of them. We need, after this, no more convincing that drugs are the new currency, and the only currency, in most of the modern world.