Seymour: An Introduction

Movie Information

The Story: A loving look in on classical pianist Seymour Bernstein. The Lowdown: A thoroughly charming, warm look at a man who may make you rethink what "greatness" means. If you only see one documentary this year, make it this one.
Genre: Biographical Documentary
Director: Ethan Hawke
Starring: Seymour Bernstein, Andrew Harvey, Michael Kimmelman, Kimball Gallagher, Junko Ichikawa, Marcus Ostermiller
Rated: PG



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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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23 thoughts on “Seymour: An Introduction

  1. Xanadon't

    So this isn’t about curb marbles and stoop ball at all? Well… I might see it.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Other than some windows, I’m not sure there’s a glass object in the damn thing.

      • Ken Hanke

        Salinger humor. (And, yes, I had to have Edwin confirm my suspicion that’s what it was.)

  2. Xanadon't

    Yes. Allow me to make it up to you with this unpretentious and early blooming bouquet of parenthesis (((())))

    • Ken Hanke

      That backbone of many a fine Chinese puzzle box sentence! I should explain. As I told Edwin, I read Catcher in the Rye and that was enough Salinger for me for two lifetimes.

  3. Xanadon't

    Had I stopped with Catcher in the Rye I probably wouldn’t think all that much of Salinger today. But I picked up Franny And Zooey, and soon afterward the rest of his published works, at precisely a time in my life that I now, 11 years later, am still stuck with an acute fascination for Salinger and the Glass family.

    I’ll endeavor to see this Ethan Hawke thing however, and maybe get some relevant conversation going.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Salinger is one of my favorite authors. Cormac McCarthy and possibly Ian McEwan have surpassed him in recent years, but he’s still way up there for me.

      “Seymour” is probably my least favorite Glass story and I like “Zooey” or “Roofbeams” the best. “For Esme” is my favorite overall of his short stories but I consider Catcher his greatest work. (And though it’s not by Salinger, the sequel by John David California is an intelligent meditation on an author’s responsibility to a famous literary character. You are welcome to borrow my copy if you’d like.) Have you read the uncollected and unpublished stories over at

      • Ken Hanke

        Most of my favorite authors wrote in the 1930s — James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut notwithstanding.

        • Xanadon't

          Another Country and Giovanni’s Room both knocked me on my ass, they were so damn good. Baldwin is incredible.

      • Xanadon't

        I didn’t know this John David California sequel business existed! If I can track it down I’ll make it my own, and for whatever reason I run into problems I’ll gladly take you up on your offer. Thanks! I have been over to, but it was years ago and from the looks of things it’s grown mightily since. I don’t know if I’m ready to claim “Seymour” as my least favorite of the Glass series, though I’ve probably read “Franny and Zooey” twice as many times. “Nine Stories” is the work I really ought to revisit, but yes, “Love and Squalor” stands out, along with “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”.

        I keep meaning to delve further into McCarthy. As it stands, all I’ve read from him is “The Road”. I know, I know– I must pick up “Blood Meridian”. Unfamiliar with McEwan all together. I’m quite behind when it comes to contemporary authors. My latest mission is to see what this Ron Rash is all about.

        • Edwin Arnaudin

          I got my copy of 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye shipped from Amazon UK and it has a red “Banned in the USA!” sticker on the cover. I guess it’s still not available stateside.

          With the exception of his script for The Counselor (I’ve seen and like the film), I’ve actually read everything by McCarthy, including his plays. One you get going, it’s tough to stop. Blood Meridian is my favorite of his, but the four Tennessee novels are no slouches, especially Suttree – essentially the book that won him the MacArthur genius grant that allowed him to put in the time necessary for Blood Meridian. The Crossing is also superb.

          Did you see the adaptation of McEwan’s Atonement? I prefer it to the book, which is also great. Solar is my favorite of his novels.

          The only Rash I’ve read is Serena and it was on audiobook. I like it.

          Having recently finished reading Wonder Boys, I was reminded that Michael Chabon belongs on my list of contemporary masters, too.

          • Xanadon't

            It sounds as though you create more time to read than I do. Now and then I’ll go on a spurt where I read ten books in as many weeks, but then it’s back to six months, zero books. Most recently it was nearly everything George Saunders has published and then four Jose Saramago novels. (I fell quickly and easily in love with both writers.) Alas, I bought “Inherent Vice” from Justin a while back but abandoned it 70 pages through. Not that I didn’t like it– it’s actually pretty great– but, you know, life. I plan to come back to it, and I’ve got Ron Rash’s “The Cove” sitting on the coffee table.

            Yes, I’ve seen Atonement and now that name sounds familiar. I really like the movie, but then I really like Joe Wright. In fact, as strong as the movie is I’d probably still rate it below Pride and Prejudice and certainly below Anna Karenina. But Solar is the one to look for you say…

            As for Chabon, I’ve got a copy of I Was a Teenage Werewolf lying around. It suffered the Inherent Vice fate…

          • Ken Hanke

            A combination of a lack of time and energy has much to do with why my reading has gone to hell. To some degree I blame computers. I seem to do all my reading here and when I get away from it, I don’t seem to be inclined to read more. Audiobooks are not an option. I know I’d fall asleep listening to someone read to me. (People are always saying they listened to a book on a long drive, and all I can do is envision myself in a ditch.) Time, however, is the real killer, I think. There never seems to be as much as there once was. It embarrasses me to remember how long it’s been since I took the time to listen to an entire symphony.

            I’ve no interest in reading Atonement, but I do want to re-watch the film, which I suspect I underrated at the time. Or maybe not. Yeah, Pride and Prejudice is swell and Anna Karenina is a marvel, but…The Soloist??? And I have some reservations about the upcoming Pan.

            One question…don’t you boys ever read — you know, junk? I’ve read and re-read things like Nero Wolfe books, Ngaio Marsh books, even Philo Vance ones (yeah, they’re all mysteries) for as long as I can remember.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I suppose that’s the case. I read each day at lunch and usually for a short block in the afternoon as a break from writing. Are you on Goodreads? That’s how I keep track of what I’ve read and what others are reading.

            I’m not sure if Pynchon is the author for me. I’ve read Inherent Vice, V. and The Crying of Lot 49. All have their moments and are brilliant with language, but I prefer a more grounded narrative from which inventiveness may blossom – and he’s not interested in that. Still, I’ll likely give Vineland, Mason & Dixon and Bleeding Edge a try before too long.

            Solar is smart like other McEwan books, but it’s also funny (a somewhat rare quality for him).

            I still haven’t seen The Soloist, like Pride and Prejudice well enough (I’ll take an Austen adaptation over her writing any day), don’t love Anna Karenina the way you gents do and am lukewarm on Hanna as well (though its bus station long take is one of Wright’s finest moments). We’ll see about Pan.

            As for reading junk – I guess it depends on your definition. I like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, but still consider them well-written. I used to be a big John Grisham fan, too.

          • Ken Hanke

            Are you on Goodreads? That’s how I keep track of what I’ve read and what others are reading.

            The internet strikes again. I will refrain from further comment.

            don’t love Anna Karenina the way you gents do

            I see you insist on still being wrong about Anna Karenina.

            As for reading junk – I guess it depends on your definition. I like Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries, but still consider them well-written. I used to be a big John Grisham fan, too.

            I never said the things I read were poorly written — only that they’re not “Important.” On the other hand, what little Grisham I’ve read, I found pretty deplorable. At the same time, I’ve read just about every Stephen King book, so I am in no position to talk.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            I’ll be more specific: Tim, are you on Goodreads?

          • Ken Hanke

            I knew it wasn’t addressed to me. That didn’t mean I had no opinion on “Goodreads.”

          • Xanadon't

            The pop-up edition I assume? Cuz if it’s the scratch-and-sniff you’re sitting on a small gold mine.

          • Ken Hanke

            I think it’s a little too…er…vintage for either

  4. Ken Hanke

    Not exactly surprising, but this is leaving on Friday. Maybe before the Thu. evening shows.

  5. Xanadon't

    Nope, Edwin, not on Goodreads. My brother has bugged me to get on board, but… I doubt it. Reading just isn’t and hasn’t been a very big part of my life for too long now. And, sadly, I need not look further than my own book shelves for plenty of unread books. My eyes tend to be bigger than my stomach that way.

    I read so little these days, Ken, that when I do pick up a book I’d feel too guilty if it wasn’t at least marginally “important”. The last time I read “junk”, or at least what I more or less consider junk, was consecutive Chuck Palahniuk novels– Choke and Lullaby. From the ages of 16 to 20 I read a great many fantasy novels. Sword and sorcery was about all I read for a stint there. Some of it was pretty great. The rest, less so.

    Oh, right. The Soloist. I forgot that was Joe Wright. Never saw it. Probably never will.

    • Ken Hanke

      I think I’m just the wrong generation — and definitely the wrong temperament — for sword and sorcery stuff. But I cling tenaciously to my old mystery novels, and back when I did read, I’d as likely pull a vintage mystery — even if I’d read it many times — off the shelves as anything of “value.” (I like the characters and the atmosphere. Don’t care that much about knowing whodunit.) If I were to tackle anything more “weighty” at this point, it’d be to re-read the last six books of John Galsworthy’s (I see you going, “Who?”) Forsyte Chronicles. (The first three — called The Forsyte Chronicles — are better known– they were Masterpiece Theatered — but they don’t do much for me.) Whether I’ll ever get around to this remains to be seen.

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