[NOTE: I wrote this review for publication, but it wasn’t able to run. I still wanted to share it, though, because this movie was lovely. Enjoy!]
Ethan Hawke was having a crisis. The kind that keeps you up at night, tossing and turning, even when you’re a fancy-pants Hollywood type with four Oscar nominations to your name. He was starting to wonder what the meaning of his acting career was, and that struggle translated itself into crippling stage fright.
Then he went to a friend’s New York dinner party and found himself seated next to Seymour Bernstein. The octogenarian was a pianist, not an actor, but his words of wisdom about art and purpose made an indelible impression—so indelible, in fact, that Hawke decided to make a movie about the guy.
Seymour: An Introduction is a minute, loving portrait of Bernstein, the type of New York aesthete who’s unfamiliar to the larger world but a legend in the classical-music realm. Despite its title, Seymour has no relation to the J.D. Salinger novella of the same name—except the fact that, like the famously reclusive author, Bernstein has made it his business to dodge the spotlight. The master pianist turned his back on a promising performing career decades ago, instead devoting his life to teaching others to play the instrument.
This film isn’t Hawke’s first directing rodeo. He’s helmed two indie dramas: 2001’s Chelsea Walls and 2006’s The Hottest State, which he also wrote. But Seymour is his first swing at a documentary, and he turns out to be a natural.
That said, Hawke’s subject would balk at the term natural. Bernstein’s whole teaching philosophy hinges on the idea that true artistry isn’t something that just comes to you. It’s something you work at—tirelessly, passionately—until it’s so deeply ingrained in your being that it becomes more than your life’s work; it becomes your whole life. “The struggle is what makes the art form,” the venerable pianist says during one of his many elegant digressions. “If we didn’t have the dissonance, we wouldn’t know the meaning of the resolution.”
Hawke’s camera is patient and observant, lingering over Bernstein’s piano lessons with his pupils. As anyone who’s ever had a great teacher knows, there’s a deep pleasure in watching a master mentor in his element. Bernstein is by turns patient and prickly with his students, guiding their hands with his own or admonishing them to be gentler with the keys.
Bernstein’s life story is interwoven with his lessons, beginning with his early childhood in a music-less home, and falling hard and fast for the piano when he heard a recording of Schubert’s Ständchen. His personal anecdotes drive home why Hawke must have found him such an entertaining dinner companion. Bernstein shares tales of a wealthy patroness who took the young musician under her perhaps too doting wing, his experience as a soldier in the Korean War, and his anxiety leading up to a semi-legendary 1969 recital at Lincoln Center. Bernstein also isn’t afraid to get harsh: He makes no bones about his opinion that iconoclast pianist Glenn Gould was full of it.
And though the key to Seymour‘s success as a documentary lies in its specificity, both Hawke and Bernstein have a larger fish to fry: the question of how and to what degree art—be it music, acting or otherwise—can be an end in and of itself, not just a way of passing a life but a way of giving it meaning. “The real essence of who we are resides in our talent, in whatever talent there is,” Bernstein tells Hawke.
Bernstein has his reasons for shying away from fame and public performance, which are challenged throughout the film by his colleagues and former students. But in the end, one of the most remarkable things about Seymour is that Hawke did ultimately convince Bernstein to perform publically again, at the age of 88, after more than three decades away from the concert stage.
When we finally get to see that happen, it’s with an appreciation that can only come from having spent time with this man—watching him share his teaching philosophies, testing out pianos in the Steinway showroom and falling in love with the instrument all over again.
Because ultimately, Seymour is a love story—between a man and a piano, and between a director and his subject.