Skip to main content

A Slow-Motion Road Picture.

Film critic John Powers reviews The Straight Story, the latest film by acclaimed Director David Lynch.

04:45

Contributor

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on October 15, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 15, 1999: Interview with Tony Bennett; Review of the film "The Straight Story."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 101501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Tony Bennett: "The Good Life"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

Tony Bennett has a new CD featuring songs by Duke Ellington. On today's FRESH AIR, we feature on 1998 interview with Bennett. We'll hear music spanning his five-decade career, including music from "Bennett Sings Ellington." Also, film critic John Powers reviews "The Straight Story," a new film from director David Lynch.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First the news.

(NEWS BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Frank Sinatra once called Tony Bennett the best singer in the business, and I wouldn't want to quarrel with that. Tony Bennett has a new CD of songs by Duke Ellington.

On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we have an interview with Tony Bennett recorded last year.

Let's first hear a song from "Bennett Sings Ellington." This is "Don't Get Around Much Any More."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "DON'T GET AROUND MUCH ANY MORE," TONY BENNETT)

I'm not playing solitaire,
I take a book down from the shelf.
And what with programs on the air,
I keep pretty much to myself.

Missed the Saturday dance.
Heard they crowded the floor.
Couldn't bear it without you.
Don't get around much any more.

Thought I'd visit the club,
I got as far as the door.
They'd have asked me about you.
Don't get around much any more.

Darling, I guess my mind's more at ease.
But nevertheless, why stir up memories?

I've been invited on dates...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: I spoke with Tony Bennett last November after the publication of his memoir, "The Good Life." We talked first about his childhood. When he was 10, his father died. As a teenager, Tony Bennett had to work to help support the family. He dropped out of high school.

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

TONY BENNETT: I became a singing waiter towards the end of the -- I didn't finish high school. So I became a singing waiter in Astoria, Long Island, and found that out of all the jobs, I didn't like any job I had, and it was the only job that I said, "If I have to do this the rest of my life, I'll be happy be doing that."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Close, huh?

BENNETT: Yeah.

GROSS: It sounds like you really liked high school, even though you had to drop out. You when to the High School of Industrial Arts in New York.

BENNETT: I loved it. It was so -- you know, it was a school that was set up by President Roosevelt to just -- and Mayor LaGuardia to just help children get an occupation. And it was a wonderful school because they taught you the techniques of every form of art, and -- stained-glass windows and silk screen and photography, painting, cartooning.

It was just wonderful. And we had great teachers. And it was a wonderful experience.

GROSS: And of course, you still paint. When you were in high school, did you think you would be a professional painter or a singer?

BENNETT: Well, I -- there was one teacher, Mr. Sandberg, who was the music department of the school, and he said -- you know, he said, "You really have an exceptional voice, and you should really carry on as an entertainer." And he got the art teachers upset with him. But I took his advice, and it's been a split road ever since. I paint and sing, and that's become my life.

GROSS: You were drafted toward the end of World War I, and after basic training you were sent to the front lines. Where were you sent?

BENNETT: I was sent as a replacement after the Battle of the Bulge, days after the Battle of the Bulge. And it was very traumatic. I really -- it really affected my whole life, because I couldn't believe the deportment of the soldiers that were on the Battle of the Bulge. It was just tragic to see how it affected their lives, to see all that killing and insanity. It was something that I'll never forget, and it changed my life.

GROSS: Were there still bodies from the battle lying all around when you got there?

BENNETT: Yes.

GROSS: While you were at the front lines during World War II, Bob Hope did a show that you got to see. And you say that had an enormous impact on you, going from the front lines to seeing this terrific show. Do you remember what songs he sang or what jokes he told?

BENNETT: Well, I remember "Thanks for the Memory," his theme song. But more than that, he had Jane Russell on the show, and Les Brown's band. And the GIs -- and I was one of them -- and we couldn't believe it that he was so wonderful to us. And what a memorable show.

And he took us off the line. I mean, it was really -- I always say that he actually saved my life because we were -- had 88 bombs coming at us, you know, and all of a sudden they said, "You're going back," retreating. So I thought we were retreating, and found out that it was just a release and a relief for us to just get a second wind before we went back again.

And he was just -- I mean, I can't tell you that -- how many soldiers will never forget Bob Hope for what he did for them.

GROSS: I know you got to work with Bob Hope. Did you tour with him during wartime at any point?

BENNETT: No, it was after the war. And for about five years I was just looking around for work, and then Pearl Bailey heard me down in Greenwich Village, and she was working in a club, the Greenwich Village Inn, and heard me rehearsing in the afternoon. And she told the owner, "If you don't have him on the show, I'm not coming in here."

And she got me started there. And then he came down from the Paramount Theater. He came down to hear Pearl, and saw me on the show and got a big kick out of it and said, "Come on. You're coming up to the Paramount," and changed my name from Anthony Dominick Benedetto to Tony Bennett.

GROSS: Bob Hope changed that?

BENNETT: Yeah. He said, "Let's Americanize you. We'll call you Tony Bennett." (laughs) So that was a thrill. I've had that name ever since. And when I paint it's Benedetto, my family name, and when I perform, it's Tony Bennett.

GROSS: What you think you learned from Bob Hope in terms of show business?

BENNETT: Well, it's a nice Jewish expression, you know, "Show them you like them." You know, he always told me to -- when you come out on a stage, you know, just make sure that you show the people that you enjoy being there and you want to entertain them. And show them your enthusiasm.

GROSS: How do you do that?

BENNETT: You psych yourself out, and you just do it. After a while, it becomes -- you realize that it's the right way, and then you really mean it.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to choose something from your first round of Columbia Records. You know, you left them and then came back, and you're with Columbia again. But choose something from the first time you were with Columbia that you particularly like and that you think holds up really well.

BENNETT: Well, you might -- I introduced a song called "Blue Velvet," and you might like to hear that.

GROSS: It's funny, most people will know that from the Bobby Vinton recording.

BENNETT: Yeah, well, that's -- that's -- see, that's once again the commercial side of it, because it has a terrible background and it's really well -- not -- it's not recorded well. (laughs) They say that -- it -- there's a friend of mine that was way ahead of time. He had a record company called Horrible Records. He said if it's horrible, it's bound to be a hit. (laughs)

GROSS: So you don't -- you think the Bobby Vinton version wasn't recorded well?

BENNETT: No, it wasn't.

GROSS: OK.

BENNETT: It's not my opinion.

GROSS: OK. (laughs)

BENNETT: It's a fact.

GROSS: And so your version precedes his?

BENNETT: Yeah, but it still sold a lot of records.

GROSS: Right.

BENNETT: I mean, you know, that's what's so funny. When I meet a rock star, you know, they really make $500 million or something. And I do very well. I mean, I'm, you know, financially comfortable and everything, and -- but they look at me like I'm on Welfare.

GROSS: (laughs)

BENNETT: They say things like, "Are you still singing? Are you still singing, Mr. Bennett?" And I say, "Why are you calling me Mr. Bennett? You're as old as I am."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Well, let hear "Blue Velvet." This is Tony Bennett.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "BLUE VELVET," TONY BENNETT)

She wore blue velvet,
Bluer than velvet was the night.
Softer than satin was the light from the stars.

She wore blue velvet,
Bluer than velvet were her eyes.
Warmer than May her tender sighs,
Love was ours.

Ours a love I held tightly,
Feeling the rapture grow
Like a flame burning brightly.
But when she left,
Gone was the glow of blue velvet.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: That's Tony Bennett. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, SONG EXCERPT, TONY BENNETT)

Well, baby, what I couldn't do
With plenty of money and you
In spite of the worry that money brings
Just a little filthy lucre buys a lot of things
And I could take you to places...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

(END AUDIOTAPE)

(BREAK)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1998 interview with Tony Bennett. He has a new CD called "Bennett Sings Ellington."

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

When you first signed to Columbia Records, this was in the early 1950s, Frank Sinatra was still on the label, and he and Mitch Miller occasionally had feuds about repertoire. Did you get to know Frank Sinatra during that period? Did you see yourselves as friends, or as rivals?

BENNETT: No, I didn't know him at all at that time. But then I started getting one hit after another. I was the Madonna of my day. (laughs) And what happened was, I was got this wonderful opportunity. Perry Como had me do a summer replacement, and left me with a kind of a bare stage in the summer replacement.

And I was very frightened about how to perform on television. Well, I just took a deep breath, and Sinatra was at the Paramount Theater for -- with a reunion with Tommy Dorsey, and I said, "I'm going to go backstage and talk to him."

And I was warned, "Look out." He could be pretty tough. So I said, "No, but I love the way he sings, and I love him personally as a fan. I'm just going to go up and talk to him."

Found out that it was just the opposite of what everybody said about him. He was just wonderful to me, and sat me right down in the dressing room and gave me some wonderful advice about not worrying about being nervous, because he said the public likes that. He said, "If you don't care," he said, "why should the audience care?" He said, "If you're nervous, they're going to see that you care, so they're going to root for you. And more they root for you, the more you'll give back to them." And he said, "It'll just be fine."

And it was wonderful advice. And then he said the very same thing I was always kind of fighting for, and he said, "Don't ever do silly songs. Stay away from silly songs. Do very well-written songs by great composers." Well, that advice was fantastic, because it's really sustained me for 45 years now.

GROSS: You recently did a tribute album to Sinatra called "Perfectly Frank." And I thought this would be a good time to play something from that. I thought we'd hear "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Do you want to say anything about this song or about recording the album before we hear it?

BENNETT: Well, that's -- that was a song that made everybody, men and women, fall in love with Frank Sinatra. That was the first movie he was in, and it was a lovely song. That was my favorite period of Sinatra, anyway. It was the most musical, and it was at the height of American popular music.

I don't think it will ever be replaced. It was -- he had this gorgeous gift. He was the equivalent in popular music to DiStefano in opera. He had this great musicality in his voice that was just naturally gifted. It was a golden voice. And this -- his recording of that really proves how wonderfully he sang.

GROSS: Well, this is Tony Bennett singing "I Fall in Love too Easily."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY," TONY BENNETT)

I fall in love too easily,
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.

My heart should be well schooled
Because I've been fooled in the past.
And still I fall in love too easily,
I fall in love too fast.

My heart should be well schooled
Because I've been fooled in the past
And still I fall in love too easily,
I fall in love too fast

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Do you feel that you learned things about singing from listening to Sinatra?

BENNETT: Oh, well, you know, if you listen to one, it's thievery, but if you listen to everybody, it's research.

GROSS: (laughs)

BENNETT: So I listen to Sinatra, I listen to Bing Crosby, I listen to Louis Armstrong. You know, there's a lot of girl singers that taught me how to sing -- Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. They're all wonderful stylists and do great things with intimate singing, the art of intimate singing.

GROSS: You are not only a big fan of Sinatra's, he was a big fan of yours. And in a much-quoted now "Life" magazine article from April of 1965, he said, "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business. 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 bit more."

It strikes me, though, that you lived your lives very differently. At least from my perspective, just kind of watching, it looks like you lived your lives pretty differently. Frank Sinatra was much more in the limelight, there was the Rat Pack. He had a reputation as being much more temperamental, and so on.

And I'm wondering if you feel like you learned anything by watching him live his life, in terms of the effect of that public life on him.

BENNETT: Well, you know, we were never really that close. The Rat Pack was a lot closer to him. I lived on the East Coast most of the time, and he was out on the West Coast and making films and doing nightclubs in Vegas mostly. But yet, I'd go see him a lot, and whenever I saw him it was wonderful.

But then there would always be these things that would always surprise me because when I first met Orson Welles backstage at the Radio City at the Night of a Hundred Stars, he said, "You know," he says, "I go to every one of Sinatra's parties, and he always plays your records," you know, things like that. I would always be shocked, and say, "You're kidding." He said, "No, that's true."

And then every -- I realized, looking back, that every season Sinatra would always change quite a few numbers in his performance every season. He would always say something about me that was complimentary. Either he'd mention a song that I recorded or say, "You've got to see this guy Bennett. He's really cooking right now."

And he'd say something to the audience that would promote the public to come and see me. So he was very -- he really affected my career because his huge fan clubs, they would all say, "Let's see what Sinatra's talking about." And they would -- he would really fill the seats for me. And he's always been a great friend right through the years.

And then one night, just recently before he died, the last performance he gave at Radio City, I was sitting in the audience. And he said, "This my friend." He says, "He's my best friend not only in show business, but my best friend, period." And he had me stand up and take a bow in Radio City. And that really moved me. That was something.

GROSS: It strikes me you were always a more kind of accessible performer than Sinatra. I don't mean musically, but in terms of just contact with you. I mean, Sinatra wouldn't have done a radio interview, I don't think, unless maybe with Sid Mark, who does the Sinatra show.

BENNETT: Right.

GROSS: Sinatra probably couldn't even have played Carnegie Hall because he had to play stadiums, and...

BENNETT: Well, no, that was later. He did play Carnegie Hall, and when he did, it was magnificent. I saw him -- in fact, it was the best concert I ever saw in my life for a popular singer. And it was at Carnegie Hall with a tremendous orchestra of about 80 musicians, and everybody in tails. And it was -- oh, God, it was a magnificent evening.

But I know exactly what you're saying. But you see, that was the -- in those days, it was the film star attitude. You know, you had to appear unattainable.

GROSS: Yes, I think you put your finger on it. You had to appear unattainable. Yeah.

BENNETT: Yeah. Well, it's almost like -- you know, every -- in show business, everything's kind of a game. Each individual plays it a different way. And I've always -- I liked Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, in the sense that they were truly humble, and they were accessible to the fans.

I learned a long time ago -- I've played Britain for the last 50 years now, and there are just lines of fans at the end of the performance that -- in a double row, and they just want my autograph. And we just -- I just stay there and sign every autograph. I mean, I just think it's -- you know, if they like me, I'm going to like them.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

GROSS: Tony Bennett, recorded last November. We'll hear more in the second half of the show.

Bennett has a new CD of songs by Duke Ellington.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I'VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING," TONY BENNETT)

I've got the world on a string,
Sitting on a rainbow.
Got the string around my finger...

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Tony Bennett. He has a new CD of songs by Duke Ellington.

I spoke with Bennett last November, after the publication of his memoir, "The Good Life." In writing about his own life, he wrote about some of the musicians he's known and worked with, including Bill Evans.

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

GROSS: I want to pause here for some more music. And I think every time you've ever done FRESH AIR, I've managed to play something from one of the Tony Bennett-Bill Evans records. They're such extraordinary records, and...

BENNETT: Thank you.

GROSS: ... so I thought this time around we'd play "Some Other Time."

BENNETT: Oh, good.

GROSS: So let's hear that, and then we'll talk a little bit.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "SOME OTHER TIME," TONY BENNETT)

Where has the time all gone to?
Haven't done half the things we want to.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

This day was just a token,
Too many words are still unspoken.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

Just when the fun is starting
Comes the time for parting.
But let's be glad for what we've had
And what's to come.

There's so much more embracing
Still to be done, but time is racing.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: That's Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, and my guest is Tony Bennett. He has a new memoir which is called "The Good Life."

In your memoir you write a little bit about doing your two records with Bill Evans, and you loved working with him. And God, these records are extraordinary. You say the problem, though, that you saw was -- the depressing thing was watching how Bill Evans' drug habit interfered with his life. Did it interfere with his music too, do you think? Did you feel it getting in the way that all of rehearsals or whatever?

BENNETT: Well, no, it didn't affect him at all. And anyway, he went past that. He hated being addicted. He hated it. I told him, I said, "I guess you didn't get enough love when you were young." He said, "Oh, love." He said, "I wish someone would have hit me and knocked me out the first time I took a needle." He said, "That was the worst thing that ever happened to me."

And he was very, very sick. At the end of his life, I can't tell you how hard it was. It was just absolutely hard. He just would blow up. And at the end of performance he would play everything, and he would just blow up. And he was just filled up with water and fluid, and he'd have to lay down in the prone position and just wait until it all subsided.

And I'll never forget that one night I was in a small little town somewhere, and I got this call from Bill Evans. And it was six months before he died. And he said, "Tony," he said, "just think truth and beauty," he said, "and just forget the rest." That was his last words to me.

GROSS: Why do you think he said that?

BENNETT: Because he believed that that's the right way. He believed that that's what music's about. He believed that that's the road to correct music and correct living. Truth and beauty, you know, that's what life is all about.

GROSS: And you think he was able to keep in touch with that musically even when he was really sick?

BENNETT: Oh, he -- no, that -- he went past the sickness. He just had to do it -- he had this -- he was compulsive about just playing better and better and better. And it was amazing, the intensity. He was a genius at -- he -- you know, he bridged the gap. I mean, before, the classical music always wanted to play jazz, and they couldn't quite make it. And jazz artists wanted to play classical, and they couldn't quite make it.

He found a way to bridge the gap. He was able to swing and still had classical background. So that's when -- people like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, when they heard him play, and they said, "God, I have to sing with this guy." They couldn't believe what they were listening to. The resolvements in the music that he was playing were so fantastic." They had never heard anything like that. He was that good.

GROSS: My guest is Tony Bennett. His new autobiography is called "The Good Life." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

(BREAK)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1998 interview with Tony Bennett. He has a new CD of songs by Duke Ellington.

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

I want to ask you about Duke Ellington. It seems like you had a really nice relationship with him. You say that he used to send you flowers after he wrote a new song.

BENNETT: Yeah, every time he wrote a new song he sent me flowers.

GROSS: Why did he do that?

BENNETT: Well, because he was a gentleman. (laughs) It's old-fashioned, but it was correct. He was just courteous to people that he liked.

GROSS: Did he want you to sing the song? Is that why he sent them to you? I'm sure he didn't send flowers to everyone he knew after he wrote a song.

BENNETT: No, he liked me, and we were close. Our families were close. And he was a -- oh, what a -- he was another master, a great master. It's funny, people don't realize it, but there are more recordings of his music than the Beatles. Every musician -- everywhere in the world, wherever I go, I'll go into some cabaret somewhere, I'll listen to a radio in Denmark or Sweden or Belgium, and you'll hear a Duke Ellington song. Every musician just loves Duke Ellington.

GROSS: Would you choose a Ellington song that you recorded that you'd like us to play?

BENNETT: Yeah, "Solitude" is fine.

GROSS: Good. Let's hear that. And this is Tony Bennett.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SOLITUDE," TONY BENNETT)

In my solitude you hold me
With reveries of days gone by.
In my solitude you taunt me
With memories that never die.

I sit in my chair
I'm filled with despair
Because no one could be so sad.

With gloom everywhere,
I sit and I stare.
I know I'll soon go mad, go mad.

In my solitude I'll pray,
Dear Lord above, bring back my love.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: That's Tony Bennett singing Duke Ellington's "Solitude."

Tony Bennett has a new memoir which is called "The Good Life."

Did you have personal relationships with a lot of songwriters?

BENNETT: Yes, I did. Harold Arlen was my very favorite. And I never met Nia Parberg (ph), but Harold Arlen told me that Nia Parberg was the best lyric writer that ever lived. And he wrote with everyone, Ira Gershwin -- I met Ira Gershwin. He was fantastic. But I had personal relationships with Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and Jack Siegel, Alan and Marilyn Bergman (ph).

GROSS: Did anybody write songs especially for you? I know you are often asked to be the first person to record a song.

BENNETT: Johnny Mercer wrote "I Want to Be Around" for me.

GROSS: That's an interesting story. Do you want to tell that?

BENNETT: Well, that -- yes, it's a wonderful story. You know, Sadie Vinderstat (ph) was a fan in Youngstown, Ohio, and she was an amateur songwriter. And she wrote "I Want to Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart." She wrote a fan letter to Johnny Mercer, and she said, "Johnny, this sounds like something you would write," she said.

And so he got such a kick out of it, he wrote the song, he finished it, and gave her 50 percent of the song. And Sadie would send me -- after the song was a hit, she would send me cards from all over, from Paris, from Russia, from England. And she'd say, "Thanks so much, Tony."

She was -- I think she was the only songwriter that really, really went overboard in thanking me for recording her song. But she took vacations all over the world with the money that she made from that song.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "I Want to Be Around," Tony Bennett.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I Want to Be Around," TONY BENNETT)

I want to be around to pick up the pieces
When somebody breaks your heart
Some somebody twice as smart as I

A somebody who will swear to be true
As you used to do with me
Who'll leave you to learn
That misery loves company.
Wait and see.

I mean, I want to be around to see how he does it
When he breaks your heart to bits.
Let's see if the puzzle fits
So fine.

And that's when I'll discover
That revenge is sweet
As I sit there applauding
From a front row seat

When somebody breaks your heart
Like you, like you broke mine.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: You know, it's funny. There was a period in your life when, after Clive Davis became the president of Columbia Records, when you were asked to do a lot of cover songs of the rock and pop hits of the day. And you often didn't like those songs and didn't feel they were appropriate for you.

The idea was to get you to sell to younger audiences. You did your best to always just do songs that you loved. And it's interesting now, you've developed a following on the part of younger people who listen to rock-and-roll, and you did you're "MTV Unplugged" show, and the record and the show were a tremendous hit.

I'm interested in how you kind of got connected that way, and what role perhaps your son Danny, who's been managing your career, played in maybe bridging the gap between the generations.

BENNETT: Well, Danny came up to me one day and said, you know, that my songs are starting to connect with people his age. I said, "You're kidding." So he put me on SCTV up in Toronto with John Candy and -- and then...

GROSS: I remember that. You did "The Fishing Magician" -- not "The Fishing Magician," what was it called? "The Fishing...

BENNETT: I forget now.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you went fishing with him, and your head blew up.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear something from the "Unplugged" CD, and this is "It Had to Be You."

BENNETT: Thank you.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "It Had to Be You," TONY BENNETT)

It seems like dreams like I've always had
Could be, should be making me glad
Well, why am I blue?
It's up to you to explain.

I'm thinking maybe, baby, I'll go away
Someday, some way maybe you'll come and say
"It's you that I need"
And you'll be pleading in vain

It had to be you
It had to be you
I wandered around and finally found
The somebody who could make me be true, could make me be blue
Even be glad just to be sad thinking of you

Some others I've seen might never be mean...

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: That's Tony Bennett from his "Unplugged" CD, and he has a new memoir called "The Good Life."

You know, we were talking before about composers that you've known. And I'm wondering if any composers have given you a deeper understanding of a song that you sang by kind of talking to you about the song or by singing a line of it for you, emphasizing a certain word?

BENNETT: Well, yes. Harold Arlen told me to always exaggerate, you know, and change it any way you want to. He said, "My songs are nothing but a tool to perform with." He said, "Whatever you want to do with a song, just do it. " He said, "Just exaggerate it."

And, you know, instead of saying -- you know, instead of saying, (singing) Don't know why there's no -- say, (singing) Don't know WHY there's no sun up in the sky. You know, just dramatize it, and -- but that's the smallest part of it.

The best example is Ernie Harberg (ph). He wrote a book called "Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz?" And he explained that his father said the way to detect a good song, to find a good song, is if the music hits you emotionally, and the words hit you intellectually. He said, "Then" -- he said, "Then it's almost positive that you have a very good song."

GROSS: Tony Bennett, it's just been a delight to speak with you. Thank you very, very much.

BENNETT: Thank you very much.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

GROSS: Tony Bennett, recorded last November.

Let's hear a song from his new CD, "Bennett Sings Ellington Hot and Cold."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, SONG EXCERPT, TONY BENNETT)

If you hear a song in blue
Like a flower crying for the dew
That was my heart serenading you
My prelude to a kiss

If you hear a song that grows
From my tender, sentimental woes
That was my heart trying to compose
A prelude to a kiss

Though it's just a simple melody
With nothing fancy, nothing much
You could turn it to a symphony
A Schubert tune with a Gershwin touch

Oh, how my love song gently cries
For the tenderness within your eyes
My love is a prelude that never dies
A prelude to a kiss.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews David Lynch's new movie.

This is FRESH AIR.

(ID BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Tony Bennett
High: Singer Tony Bennett's newest CD is "Tony Bennett Sings Ellington Hot & Cool." Last year he published his autobiography: "The Good Life: The Autobiography of Tony Bennett." A look at his career and life. (First broadcast 11/25/98)
Spec: Tony Bennett; Music Industry; Entertainment; Profiles

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Tony Bennett: "The Good Life"

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 15, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 101502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: "The Straight Story": A Review
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

GROSS: "The Straight Story" is a new movie by David Lynch, set in the Midwest. Richard Farnsworth stars as an Iowa farmer. Our film critic, John Powers, says the story and tone are in sharp contrast to Lynch's best-known work, the film "Blue Velvet" and the TV series "Twin Peaks."

(BEGIN AUDIOTAPE)

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Aside from Steven Spielberg, David Lynch has probably been the most influential American filmmaker of the last quarter century. And by now, most of us feel that we know what to expect from him -- weird, darkly funny stories about the sex and violence that pulse beneath the surface of ordinary life.

But his new movie, "The Straight Story," is a departure. Why, it's even being released by Disney. Based on a true story, it's a slow-motion road picture. Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old widower who lives with his speech-impaired daughter, Rose -- that's Sissy Spacek -- in the small town of Laurence (ph), Iowa.

Alvin's a stubborn old cuss who's been estranged from his brother, Lyle (ph), for 10 years. But when Lyle has a stroke, Alvin decides to visit him in Wisconsin and effect a reconciliation. Since he doesn't have a car, he hops onto his shabby old lawn mower and hits the highway, launching a journey that carries him through a heartland that seems decidedly un-Lynchian.

Most of his encounters are low-key, and though we get allusions to dark things -- from loveless families to the slaughter in World War II -- all the darkness stays in the background. Alvin Straight's pilgrimage really is a straight story. His journey's a straight line. Lynch's story-telling is utterly straightforward, and the movie's values are so straight they could be embroidered on a needlepoint pillow.

At one point on the highway, Alvin meets a pregnant teenage girl who's fleeing her miserable home. He gives her food from his weenie roast and offers some words of advice.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP - "The Straight Story")

RICHARD FARNSWORTH: When my kids were real little, I used to play a game with them. I'd give each one of them a stick and one for each one of them. And I'd say, "You break that." Of course, they could real easy. Then I'd say, "Tie them sticks in a bundle, try to break that." Of course, they couldn't. Then I'd say, "That bundle, that's family."

(END AUDIO CLIP)

POWERS: Because Lynch is one of the few filmmakers blessed with genius, "The Straight Story" is filled with nice things. There's Freddy Francis's (ph) gorgeous photography, which captures the light of my home state of Iowa better than ever before. There's a wonderfully intimate kitchen scene between a married couple who help Alvin. These are the most convincingly normal people Lynch has ever created.

And then there's the radiance of Farnsworth, who you may remember from the '80s Western "The Gray Fox." Farnsworth, frankly, doesn't look Iowan. He's got the deep blue eyes and the ravaged handsomeness of a cowboy, not a farmer. But his charisma holds the whole movie together.

It's always exciting when any artist risks something different, and this time out Lynch really has, abandoning his usual fascination with sex and violence to tackle a new subject, death. And because this is such a daring move, I wish I could say that "The Straight Story" was Lynch's version of, say, Flaubert's "A Simple Heart," in which that great French writer triumphantly abandoned his usual ironic complexity to write a direct, compassionate tale.

But frankly, Lynch makes "The Straight Story" too deliberately straight to be true. While I love the way he films the countryside, I don't like the way he mythologizes small towny-ness, leaving out the Wal-Marts and McDonald's that are now inescapable in the Iowa countryside.

And I don't like the movie's crackerbarrel philosophy. At one point, Alvin intones, "The worst part of being old is rememberin' when you was young." And what's annoying is that this line, like the story about the twigs we heard earlier, is being offered as a kind of ultimate wisdom.

Now, I'm not knocking family or reconciliation or plan talk, but Lynch presents them as easy ultimates. The movie's sun-dappled lightness comes a bit too cheaply from a man whose whole career has been ruled by the allure of the darkness.

Which isn't to say that the movie's insincere. On the contrary, this is a genuinely heartfelt work by an artist who's often mistakenly been thought to be some sort of subversive. In fact, Lynch was a big supporter of Ronald Reagan, whose "morning in America" campaign finds something of an echo in "The Straight Story," a movie that helps explain why Lynch has exercised such a hold on our national imagination. For while his obsessions are undeniably perverse, his values are as corny as the Iowa countryside.

(END AUDIOTAPE)

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Roberta Shorrock, Phyllis Myers (ph), Naomi Person (ph), Amy Sallett (ph) and Monique Nazareth.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Powers
High: Film critic John Powers reviews "The Straight Story," the latest film by acclaimed Director David Lynch.
Spec: Movie Industry; David Lynch; "The Straight Story"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "The Straight Story": A Review
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:54

John Brown And Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths In The Fight To End Slavery

In The Zealot and the Emancipator, historian H.W. Brands reflects on two 19th century leaders who fought the institution of slavery in different ways: one radical and the other reformist.

31:39

How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution

As a teen, Heidi Schreck debated the Constitution in competitions. A film of her Broadway play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is now available on Amazon Prime. Originally broadcast March 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue