“I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky.” Those are the final words spoken at the fade out by musician/teacher Seymour Bernstein as he reflects back on his life in the surprising and thoroughly engaging documentary from actor turned filmmaker Ethan Hawke; Seymour: an introduction.
Seymour Bernstein is a classical pianist who at the age of fifty quit performing for three reasons: 1) he didn’t enjoy the commercial aspect; 2) nerves; and, 3) he wanted to create. His life became more modest but as a teacher he thrived. When explaining the importance of nerves before a performance, Seymour tells the story of Sarah Bernhardt and a fan who asked the famous French actress why she appeared so nervous before a performance. “I never get nervous when going on stage,” the fan proudly declared. “My dear,” responded the early film performer, “You will get nervous when you learn how to act.”
Before making the documentary, Ethan Hawke was having problems. As he puts it during the couple of minutes of screen time he allows himself, not only were nerves getting the better of him but so, too, was “…The superficiality of Hollywood excess.” He was looking for something, and it was a chance meeting at a New York dinner party where he met Seymour Bernstein. Hawke was struck by the gentle yet perceptive nature of the elderly man’s words and advice. It was as though the classical pianist understood Hawke’s career and performance anxieties better than Hawke’s peers, and a friendship between the two men was formed.
“The real essence of what we are resides in our talent,” Seymour tells us as we witness the pianist teaching young players in his apartment with infinite patience, calm and wisdom. “The most important thing that music teachers can do for their pupils is to inspire and encourage an emotional response, not just for music but more importantly for all aspects of life.”
The splendor of Ethan Hawke’s first film as a documentarian is how wonderfully well he captures the absolute ecstasy of playing and enjoying classical music. Witnessing the respect Seymour receives from his pupils as they describe the emotional connect they have with the music when playing – something instilled in them by Seymour’s teaching – is a joy to both hear and see. When a pupil excels during practice, Seymour tells her that her playing was a dream. “That was better than mine,” he states to the young woman, then adds with a little unassuming humor, “You’re not allowed to play better than me.”
Seymour: an introduction can’t be thought of as a complete look at the man’s life even though we catch glimpses of early days illustrating the musician’s military service. What the film achieves is that sense of craft, the magnificence of creation and, above all, the ability to equate and recognize life’s lessons buried in the astuteness of Seymour’s teaching. “When you reach my age,” Seymour tells us, “You stop playing games. You stop lying to people and you just say really what’s in your heart, and you find out that it’s the greatest compliment to someone when you really say the truth.”
The film itself is not necessarily a thing of beauty, but what the film conveys truly is.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 94 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)