Movie review: Meet a remarkable pianist who gave up the limelight in Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction | Arts

Movie review: Meet a remarkable pianist who gave up the limelight in Ethan Hawke's documentary Seymour: An Introduction

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Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Seymour: An Introduction - COURTESY IFC FILMS
  • courtesy IFC Films
  • Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke in Seymour: An Introduction
Seymour: An Introduction
★★★ ½
Opening Friday


If J.K. Simmons' turn as Whiplash’s acerbic music teacher stripped away your faith in all the pleasure and beauty found in playing music, then Seymour: An Introduction will be a restorative salve.

As indicated by its title, this sweeping, emotionally rich documentary is devoted to Seymour Bernstein, an octogenarian who abandoned his career as a classical pianist at age 50 to build a life around his true passion, teaching. Bernstein is the polar opposite of Simmons’ confrontational, bullying teacher, prodding his piano students with a guiding hand as he teaches them a precise staccato tempo in such a gentle, mesmerizing way that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen. 

Lucky for us, actor and director Ethan Hawke found Bernstein and decided to share him with the world. Hawke, who serves as both director and a brief subject of the film, has a personal relationship with Bernstein. After a chance meeting at a dinner party, Bernstein helped shepherd Hawke through an existential crisis about creativity, purpose and achieving personal happiness.

Hawke’s queries about how to find one’s true calling and become unified with one’s art in soul, mind and body serve as a loose framework for the film. Rather than full-blown biography, it walks the line between memoir and anecdote as Bernstein shares insights culled from his own life experiences, painting evocative vignettes with his words. 

He meanders from recounting his experiences playing classical music for fellow soldiers in the Korean War to his tutelage under the great English pianist Clifford Curzon to larger lessons about the role of music in a child’s development and the differences between craft and talent. The film culminates in Bernstein’s return to the stage, an endeavor we are hungry to see, as preparations for the performance are intercut seamlessly with the personal reflections.

Hawke shines with creative brilliance as director. The only drawback is that his skill in creating quiet intrigue around Bernstein leaves you wanting to know more about him. Obviously fond of his subject, Hawke does not dig into the details of Bernstein’s post-childhood family life or romances, which leaves a blank space in an otherwise full recital. Is Bernstein a hermit? Does he have contact with anyone other than students and a few close musician friends? Who has he loved in his life? Perhaps there’s room for more than simply an introduction to this little-known but awe-inspiring man.


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