Documentaries need not always be dour affairs, and director Alison Chernick’s profile of virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman is a perfect example of a light touch suiting its subject. With Itzhak, Chernick crafts a loving portrait of an utterly endearing character, forgoing any rigorous analysis of Perlman’s illustrious career in favor of a glimpse of the day-to-day reality of a brilliant musician still in top form as he enters his eighties.
That’s not to say that Chernick neglects Perlman’s backstory; on the contrary, there’s ample archival and interview footage detailing his rise from polio-stricken child prodigy to the closest thing the classical music world has to a rock star. But those looking for a detailed historical recounting of Perlman’s storied rise to prominence will have to look elsewhere, as the real focus of Chernick’s film is not strictly the music but the musician himself. Yes, there’s footage of Perlman as a 13-year-old Juiliard student on The Ed Sullivan Show, playing the national anthem before a Mets game, and warming up with Billy Joel before a show at Madison Square Garden. But the preponderance of the scant 82 minute running time is devoted to more mundane activities, such as ordering Chinese delivery with his practice quartet or walking his dogs in Central Park with his wife, Toby.
Perlman’s spouse of 50 years, Toby features prominently in Chernick’s development of the musician as a character beyond his public persona. Perlman’s biggest supporter and toughest critic, Toby reminisces about falling in love with her future husband when they were still in their teens, and it’s not hard to see why — Perlman is a charming and engaging personality with wit and charisma to spare. In the absence of any technical discussions of Perlman’s musical philosophy or in-depth examination of his Polish-Israeli heritage, the merit of his character is elucidated through his interactions with Toby, students at Juliard, or celebrity friends like Alan Alda, who stops by the Perlmans’ Upper West Side apartment for soup and wine. The resultant impression is one of a favorite uncle or family friend, a warmhearted and familiar presence that is undeniably endearing — and just so happens to have a shelf full of Grammys.
While Perlman’s personality is the selling point, Chernick’s direction is the vehicle through which that personality is allowed to shine. Along with editor Helen Yum, Chernick cross-cuts seamlessly between riveting performance footage and intimate family conversations. Whether he’s receiving awards from the likes of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, or just trying to navigate Manhattan snowdrifts on his motorized scooter, one gets the sense that Perlman remains grounded in spite of his fame and notoriety. Chernick’s approach leaves enough detail out of her loose character sketch that those in hope of some deeper insight into Perlman and his work may come away disappointed, but even those frustrated by the casual superficiality of the portrayal will find Itzhak hard to resist. Although the film is probably best suited to dedicated fans already familiar with Perlman’s story, even those coming in with no foreknowledge are likely to be won over. Not Rated.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.