This remarkable and remarkably elegant (there’s a word I’m not sure I’ve ever applied to a documentary before, but it fits here) film from Ethan Hawke about his friend, classical pianist and sometime-composer Seymour Bernstein, is one of early delights of 2015. Seymour: An Introduction is an essential for music lovers and indeed for anyone involved in — or even interested in — the arts. Its subject is a true original with much to say about music, art and life in general. He is not only an original, he’s genuine. Seymour Bernstein is the real deal.
Now, as some of you probably know, I am not generally keen on documentaries, but this is an exception of some note. As you may not know, I’m also not exactly wild about Ethan Hawke — something Seymour: An Introduction goes a long way toward changing. What easily could have been a film about Hawke and Seymour Bernstein turns out to be almost entirely about Bernstein. Hawke never editorializes and is barely in the movie. At most, he gently leads Bernstein into speaking of things he may have preferred to leave alone. The connection between the two is quite simple. Hawke met him at a dinner party where he talked to Bernstein about his own fears and worries about his acting craft and career and simply why he’s even doing what he does. Much in the way we see Bernstein interact with his students, the answers to Hawke’s questions and worryings — to the degree we really hear them — seem more indirect than specific. He conveys much this way, and he conveys it with feelings — all couched in good humor. It is no wonder that Hawke felt safe talking to him.
And for the most part, Bernstein was safe with Hawke, who rarely crosses over into areas that might be too personal. Bernstein treasures his privacy and his isolation (he’s lived in the same one room apartment for over 50 years), and Hawke accepts that — even if he does get him to give a public performance (for a small and select crowd) at the old Steinway Hall. Bernstein was an acclaimed concert pianist who made his debut with Chicago Symphony in 1969. He was a darling of the critics. Yet it never made him happy — quite the opposite — and in 1977 at the age of 50, he simply walked away from it all. It was a decision he seems not to regret in the least — even if his former student, New York Times architectural critic Michael Kimmelman, pointedly wonders if he didn’t cheat the world by quitting. (Bernstein has an answer for him, but I’ll leave that to the film.)
I went into this expecting nothing and never having heard of Seymour Bernstein. At first, I kept waiting for the gimmick — that he was physically or mentally challenged — and blessedly found no such gimmick existed. And no gimmick of any kind was needed. By the end, I felt like I’d just spent 80 enriching minutes with an old friend. It was refreshing. Rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.