Seymour Bernstein, the subject of Ethan Hawke's inspiring documentary Seymour: An Introduction, is the polar opposite of the J.K. Simmons character in Whiplash. Where the fictive jazz drumming prof of the Oscar-nominated indie taunted and terrorized his students, Bernstein, a pianist, composer, and teacher, speaks in soft cadences, often taking a seat alongside his pupils, demonstrating not just technique and touch, but how to feel the music.
Watching him instruct, inform, and share insights - with humor, humility, and no small wisdom - is the great thrill of this film. Hawke, making his nonfiction directorial bow, shares some onscreen moments with Bernstein. The actor, in the angsty throes of a midcareer crisis, looks to him for answers to big questions about art and creativity and personal happiness. Like a guru on a mountaintop, Bernstein answers.
The octogenarian musician does not live in some remote aerie, though, and his responses are anything but mystical, or mysterious. Bernstein's home is a cluttered studio apartment in New York (Hawke, a fellow New Yorker, met Bernstein at a dinner party). His piano is tucked in one corner, where his students sidle onto the bench and practice their Chopin, their Schubert. At times, he takes their hands, leading them across the keys, showing how to ease into a B flat, to be unafraid of the pedals.
Seymour: An Introduction is just that - not too much biography, or history. And one needn't be a music aficionado, or a musician, to appreciate the modest erudition coming from this man. We do learn that Bernstein was in the Army during the Korean War, performing - in a classical trio - for his fellow soldiers on the front lines. The memories of corpses, of body bags, still haunt. The pianist, who turned to teaching full time in his 50s, lived for a while in London, protege to the British keyboard virtuoso Clifford Curzon. Great teachers need great teachers, too.
With a twinkle in his eye and a tenderness to his voice, Bernstein reflects on music and musicians, on his uncomfortable time as a young man with a wealthy "patroness" who set him up in an apartment and sponsored his tours, and his eventual move away from concerts altogether. But Hawke has managed to get Bernstein to do a small recital, in the elegant Steinway showroom on West 57th Street. The guests who fill the few rows of chairs that evening - colleagues and students and friends - have a touch of awe about them.
It's easy to hear why.
Directed by Ethan Hawke. With Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke, Michael Kimmelman, Andrew Harvey. Distributed by Sundance Selects/IFC Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText