Ethan Hawke's documentary on pianist Seymour Bernstein is very much like the sonatas Bernstein plays so beautifully, teaches so insightfully — quietly moving, infinitely deep.
With "Seymour: An Introduction," the actor is making his documentary directing debut, and it's a modest but affecting one. Hawke seems so humbled by the man he is profiling that he keeps the camera and the questions at a respectful distance. That understatement is seeded by the title on screen — "seymour: an introduction" — as if to underscore that the film is content to stand in the shadow of the man.
That might seem a significant flaw. But so charming, wise and talented is the 87-year-old artist that not much is left wanting.
The film exists because of Hawke's own existential crisis, and the result makes you grateful he had one. For a few years the actor had been — as he puts it in one of the few times he injects himself into the conversation on screen — increasing crippled by stage fright, questioning why he does what he does artistically. Seated next to Bernstein at a dinner party, he began feeling safe to express his feelings, to discuss his quandary. The pianist helped more, Hawke says, than anyone else he'd spoken to.
A few minutes into "Seymour," you understand why. There is a gentleness but a sureness in the way Bernstein deals with the virtuosos he now tutors after he ended his career in the concert spotlight at 50 — he was also plagued by stage fright. Life and music are deeply intertwined in Bernstein's philosophical musings; craft is a requirement for greatness, fame is not.
The pianist and prolific composer talks of music with such precision, at times deconstructing the tonal quality of a single note with such clarity, even the tone-deaf can relate. It's as if he exists inside the sound, and because he does and expresses it so vividly, the rest of us are able to hear in new ways.
There is the expected performance footage and clips of his concert triumphs. But Bernstein's philosophy about music comes mostly from conversations with former students who serve as interviewers for Hawke. The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, who became one of Bernstein's students when he was 5, is the most prominent.
Bernstein also dishes about the competitive realities of being on the concert circuit — filled with as much infighting as any artistic top tier. He speaks resentfully of his father's disappointment about his career choice, emotionally of the time he spent as a soldier in the Korean War, and lovingly of the one-room apartment he's lived in for nearly six decades on New York's Upper West Side.
But the film is most alive when Bernstein is in front of the piano — testing Steinways to decide which one will be used in a coming concert for one of his students, explaining how one sounds distinct from another. He's a marvel to watch teaching a master class in which he stops the young artists again and again to get a single note just so; never judging, instead explaining the hows and whys in ways that meld the genius of the piece and the players.
And when the great man quietly takes his seat in front of a small audience in the Steinway showroom to play again in public, the moment is so magical, the music so expressive, you don't want it to end.
'Seymour: An Introduction'
MPAA rating: PG for some mild thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles