A famous actor walks into a friend’s dinner party, meets an 87-year-old man, and is so overcome with inspiration he decides to make a movie about him. An unlikely prompt to a successful documentary, but precisely what occurred in the making of “Seymour: An Introduction”(2014), Ethan Hawke’s new film, released March 13.
Seymour Bernstein, the focus of the portrait-style documentary, is an incredibly gifted pianist. Starting from the age of 15, his musical talents were undeniable. He achieved local fame performing for military leaders while serving in the Korean war and composing countless pieces of music, culminating his career with a celebrated world-tour. In 1977, at the age of 50, Bernstein, overwhelmed by crippling stage fright and frustration with the commercialism of the industry, played his final public concert. Since then, he has found solace in teaching and writing music in his modest one-bedroom New York City apartment. Bernstein confesses in the film, “I’m not sure that a major career is a healthy thing … I don’t think it’s very healthy to go careening around the world, playing the same pieces over and over again and not developing other parts of you — especially your creative side.”
First released in August 2014 at the Telluride Film Festival and later shown at the Toronto International Film Festival before being picked up by Sundance Selects, a brand under IFC Films, “Seymour: An Introduction” has opened to high praise. Rotten Tomatoes has awarded it a perfect 100 percent, and movie critics have been singing its praise in major publications.
The critics do so with good reason. “Seymour: An Introduction” is not your typical blockbuster film, nor is it even a typical documentary. “Seymour” fits no traditionally defined category of cinema, and it is unique in its own slow, quiet way. There are no formal interviews, fancy visual aids or anything else you would normally expect to see in a documentary. Essentially, it is largely an observational piece. Filmed periodically over several years, Hawke follows Bernstein through his day-to-day pursuits — teaching students in his apartment, writing music and chatting with his friends. It’s slow, but the simplicity is never boring; rather, the film is likely to relax viewers, allowing for reflection on the part of the audience, and on the part of Seymour.
Tidbits about Seymour’s traumatic experiences serving in the war, falling in love, struggling as a musician and performer, abandoning his recital career and other personal experiences are slowly revealed throughout the film. Seymour himself is incredibly honest and sincere throughout the piece, and he speaks to the audience as if they are his friends. He censors nothing; his portrait and his honest character are fearlessly revealed.
“Music speaks concordantly to a troubled world, dispelling loneliness and discontent, its voice discovering in it those deep recesses of thought and feeling where truth implants itself,” he says. “Music offers no quarter for compromise — no excuses, no subterfuge, no shoddy workmanship. And we sense in music an extension of ourselves, a reminder of our own potential for perfection.”
Poignant revelations like this are carefully woven into the film. The viewer can’t help but like Bernstein. His honest, sensitive soul and pure passion are heartwarming and uplifting.
Bernstein’s passion for music is overwhelming, and watching him play is a beautiful and moving experience. While classical music lovers will bask in the excess of beautifully played pieces, the film transcends music alone. His life philosophies and music are deeply intertwined and inspire people of all disciplines, not just music.
“When I was around the age of 15, I remember that I became aware that when my practicing went well, everything else in life seemed to be harmonized by that. When my practicing didn’t go well, I was out of sorts with people, with my parents. So I concluded that the real essence of who we are resides in our talent, in whatever talent there is,” he reflects.
Hawke’s portrait of Bernstein is moving, honest and inspirational. “Seymour: An Introduction” is now playing at Landmark Kendall Square.