Ethan Hawke had the good judgment to believe there was an in-depth documentary to be made about the pianist, composer and teacher Seymour Bernstein, whom he met and admired as a friendship was formed. How right he was. The result, “Seymour: An Introduction,” shown at the 2014 New York Film Festival, is a revealing look at the art and life of a fascinating individual. Hawke’s first documentary implicitly makes one wonder how many other worthy subjects may be in our midst and deserving of a film about them.
Bernstein, now in his 80s, achieved success as a concert pianist. But there came a point 35 years ago when he decided that he didn’t want to do that anymore, despite the rave reviews that he had accumulated. He decided that he wanted to teach and compose. Hawke succeeds in getting on record Bernstein’s explanation of why he felt this way.
Certainly, as we watch him with his students, we can observe his teaching gifts. There is enthusiasm, candor and the ability to tell a student how to improve in a constructive manner, and we see the pleasure he has when he sees a positive result.
Some particularly good moments come when he is conversing with Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times writer who is also a pianist and thereby strikes common ground as they speak. Ethan Hawke also has his moments on camera, but he has the wisdom not to try to hog his own film.
We get to know Bernstein quiet intimately as we see the way he lives unpretentiously in his small New York apartment. He is a good talker and comes across as very likable, someone you could enjoy spending time with despite his tendency to pontificate. That’s because he always seems to have something vital or enjoyable to say. Ever-apparent is his deep love of the piano and music—a life force for him. There is a great scene when he is choosing a piano and the excitement he instantly feels when hearing the right one.
The choice that he made to leave the concert world would appear to have worked very well for him, although you can see the joy when he does finally give a piano concert. He admits to nervousness before playing, which he says is a vital part of performing. He always has the ability of summoning a quotation to make a point and he displays a lively sense of humor about his art and himself.
Hawke has made a film as delightful as it is informative. Seymour Bernstein proves to be the ideal subject. Reviewed October 26, 2014.