A delicate, loving tribute to one of music's gentle giants.
Seymour: An Introduction
“I go to war for my art form.” That piercing statement comes from legendary, retired concert pianist and active music instructor Seymour Bernstein, a man who, with 85 years under his belt, is a fountain of musical knowledge and refined philosophy. He’s a picture of tranquility, a perpetually calm and contented soul casually scattering nuggets of life-altering wisdom on the ground with a smile, we the hungry pigeons huddling at his feet. At the age of 50, Bernstein played what he thought would be his final performance, a small, impromptu show in New York City. Since then, he’s dedicated his life to transmitting his talent and life lessons to his students, a gift extended to us via Seymour: An Introduction, a rich, serene documentary directed by one of Bernstein’s most high-profile pupils, Ethan Hawke.
The Before Midnight actor appears only briefly in the film, explaining to a small, swanky NYC crowd how Bernstein helped him deal with stage fright over the years. Fear, the retired pianist posits, is inextricably linked with art; he quit performing because the terror involved was too much to handle. Struggling with actor’s anxiety, Hawke sought advice from Bernstein, who passed on the knowledge he’d concluded over years of hard reflection: “The struggle is what makes the art form.” In other words, nerves are good: if you have nerves, that’s a sure sign you care about your work. Inspired by the close friendship that developed between them, Hawke convinced Bernstein to perform once again, on film (hence the small, swanky NYC crowd).
The film does end, unsurprisingly, with that momentous performance, but the music is only half the story. Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment is developing an ultimate understanding of the connection between music and life itself. “You can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment,” he says in one of the film’s enlightening interviews. And yes, he talks just like that. Because he’s spent his whole life pondering the nature of the art form that so thoroughly molded him, his carefully composed words resonate just as beautifully as his piano playing.
Bernstein found music at a young age, begging his mother to buy him a piano at six years old. By the time he was 15 he was giving other kids lessons, and some years later his concert debut earned him the headline “Seymour Bernstein Triumphs at the Piano” on the New York Times. Fame and success in the public eye was never of interest to him, though. In fact, he considers acclaim and celebrity to have a decidedly damaging effect on all artists. In a dialogue with his mentor, Hawke supports the argument by suggesting Marlon Brando and Jackson Pollock were “notoriously horrible people.” As further substantiation, Bernstein holds up the late Glen Gould, calling him a “neurotic mess” and a “monster” who was so wrapped up in himself that when he played Bach he infused the music with so much of his own style that it became unrecognizable as a work of the iconic German composer.
Eschewing fame and fortune led to Bernstein finding true peace, composing his own music and teaching private piano lessons in his cozy Upper West Side apartment. The film’s most heartening moments see Bernstein carefully honing his students’ skills, being honest and patient with them as he addresses their technical flaws. He’s the polar opposite of J.K. Simmons’ Terrance Fletcher from Whiplash: When a female apprentice repeats a musical phrase, correcting her flaws per Bernstein’s instruction, he’s overjoyed. “A dream,” he gushes, adding jokingly, “you’re not allowed to play better than me.” His students universally attest to Bernstein having changed the way they view not only music, but the world. This is by design: Bernstien insists that the most important thing about being a teacher “is to inspire an emotional response for all aspects of life.”
Fascinating as Bernstein is on his own, Hawke’s presentation is what really makes the film click. Everything looks elegant, from the lighting, to the editing, to the framing, and the sound design is equally immaculate. Though it’s his first time directing a documentary, Hawke seems to have a firm grasp on how to make a movie flow, almost like, well, music. Editor Anna Gustavi handles the climactic scene brilliantly, in which Bernstein performs Schumann’s “Fantasia”. We slip gracefully between seeing him perform the piece, to practicing it days before, to hearing him explain the history of the piece and why he loves it so much, all while the music hovering over the cuts uninterrupted. He narrates as he plays: “Here it comes, one of the biggest climaxes in all of music!” The awe and rapture in his eyes is reflected in ours. This is classy, dynamic filmmaking that reduced me to tears.
What exhibits Hawke’s maturity more than anything is his decision to not make a soup to nuts biography, opting rather to reveal his mentor’s character via small, candid moments of natural behavior. The film opens with Bernstein trying to work out how to get his pinky finger up to a particularly high piano key in time so as not to disrupt the momentum of a particular musical phrase. In maybe a couple of minutes, we understand his love and dedication to music, and the inner peace he’s discovered as a result of his passion. Aside from a recollection involving Bernstein’s harrowing experiences during the Korean War (“I saw body bags,” he tearfully recalls), the film is pretty low-key, its most poignant moments unfolding organically. Through music “we become one with the stars” Bernstein suggests. It’s a beautiful thought that, like Hawke’s film, is as truthful as it is poetic.